- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will today face one of his toughest political tests just two days after taking his oath when he presents a Democrat-led General Assembly his plan to reduce a huge state deficit largely through legalizing slot machines.

Anticipating a close vote on the gambling issue, Mr. Ehrlich also has considered several alternatives for reducing the $1.3 billion deficit including cuts in state spending, eliminating jobs and merging agencies.

Administration officials decline to discuss more details but said Mr. Ehrlich was confident the General Assembly would accept the plan.

"This was a very thoughtful process that Mr. Ehrlich and the lieutenant governor [Michael S. Steele] undertook," said administration spokesman Henry Fawell. "Despite a dire fiscal situation in Maryland, they are confident about having presented a sustainable budget."

In his inauguration speech, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, vowed to shrink a state government critics say ballooned during the past few years of Democrat rule.

"We're going to ask government to do what thousands of Maryland families do every day: live within its means," Mr. Ehrlich said.

While the promise brought loud applause, Republican lawmakers and others are less enthusiastic about Mr. Ehrlich's plan to cut the deficit by $800 million through legalized gambling.

The plan calls for slot machines at three racetracks in Prince George's and Baltimore counties and one at a proposed track in Howard County.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus is among the Republicans against slots.

"I have a problem with gambling as a whole," he said. "I detest the lottery, and I don't like gambling. I just have a dislike for it."

However, he acknowledged that the proposal will likely pass.

House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer said lawmakers may have no choice because the deficit is so large.

"Are we going to support slots or are we going to support Draconian cuts to support services and tax increases?" he asked.

Delegate Doyle Niemann, Prince George's County Democrat, said the money generated at the slots would come from the pockets of Maryland residents.

"Introducing two large gambling establishments in Prince George's County would bring a host of other problems with it," he said. "It won't solve the problem, only create more."

Still, Mr. Ehrlich has found support with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and other Democrats who want slots but could never convince former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Mr. Ehrlich faces fulfilling other campaign promises, too. He endorsed major transportation projects such as the Intercounty Connector and promised to give public schools an additional $150 million next year under the Thornton Commission formula.

Mr. Ehrlich has not dismissed General Assembly proposals to increase revenue by boosting the gasoline tax or closing corporate-tax loopholes. But he is adamant about not increasing the sales tax, despite Democrats' saying an increase is unavoidable before Mr. Ehrlich's term ends.

"I think before his four years are up he will seek to raise sales taxes, even if he does get through the first year with budget cuts and by obtaining licensing fees for slot machines," Mr. Miller said.

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