- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

Maryland lawmakers, bracing for a challenging session when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday in Annapolis, face a $1.3 billion budget deficit and proposals from the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years.
"This is going to be a very busy session one of the most difficult in the past 30 to 40 years," said state Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George's County Democrat.
At the top of lawmakers' agenda is the budget: The state has a $500 million deficit in its current budget and faces a $1.3 billion shortfall in the next budget, whose fiscal year begins July 1. The budget crisis will affect, if not determine, how lawmakers resolve other issues, including funding for public schools, transportation and health care.
Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has promised not to increase taxes or cut state jobs, will present his budget proposal to the General Assembly on Jan. 17, two days after his inauguration.
A key part of his proposal will be to raise as much as $800 million in state revenue by allowing racetracks to operate slot machines. Most of the money would come from selling licenses to operate slot machines at three racetracks in Baltimore and Prince George's County, and a proposed track in Allegany County.
Several Democrats, including Speaker Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County, oppose the slot machines.
"We should not take up slots as a knee-jerk reaction but have a fair and free discussion of what we are trying to accomplish here," Mr. Busch said.
Even some Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus of the Eastern Shore, say they will oppose slots because they morally oppose gambling.
Other cost-cutting options Mr. Ehrlich's transition team is considering include merging some state agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment. Such a merger could save $30 million, but some Democratic lawmakers say it is not enough to make a difference.
Republicans say the spending cuts and slots revenue could be the only way to go for now and that Mr. Ehrlich needs more time to undo the damage the Glendening administration caused.
"I would love to think that the Republican governor is a knight in shining armor who will come in Jan. 15 and save the state from eight years of bad governing, but that is not technically correct," said House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer, Baltimore County Republican.
"The only thing that we can hope for is solve the budget problem for the fiscal year, leave town without doing more damage and give the Ehrlich administration eight to nine months to take a thoughtful, deliberate look at state operations," he said.
Mr. Stoltzfus, who worked on the Ehrlich budget, said Mr. Ehrlich will keep his election promises. For instance, Mr. Ehrlich "has promised to fully fund Thornton, and his budget will live up to that," Mr. Stoltzfus said, referring to a bill that would provide $1.3 billion in additional funding for public schools over the next six years.
Last year the General Assembly passed the bill, which was based on recommendations of the Thornton Commission.
Mr. Stoltzfus said Mr. Ehrlich would not announce any tax cuts.
"There will be a lot of cutting [in spending]. There has to be, and we will count on additional revenue, pots of money that will be applied toward the deficit," he said.
Several Democrats say that despite Mr. Ehrlich's election promises, raising taxes will be inevitable.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat, said Mr. Ehrlich might get by this year with just spending cuts and revenue from slots but that he eventually will have to consider raising the sales tax.
"I think, before his four years are up, he will seek to raise sales taxes," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch have promised to work with Mr. Ehrlich on his priorities, including charter schools and Project Exile. Some lawmakers, however, such as Kumar Barve, Gaithersburg Democrat, point out that Project Exile, a crime-reduction program, has long been debated without much success.
"The program has been introduced many years by Democrats. I will say that the jury is out on whether that is effective," Mr. Barve said.
Democratic lawmakers also did not express much hope for the faith-based initiative Mr. Ehrlich plans to introduce. His bill would create an office under the governor's control that would look at state funding for charities run by religious groups.
Faith-based groups do "wonderful work," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat, but it would be hard to offer them funding this year.
"Can he get money for faith-based charities when fundamental programs are going to be cut? I think that could be a problem," Mr. Pinsky said.
Still, Democrats say they plan to go easy on the new governor, for now.
Mr. Miller, who supports slots, said lawmakers would try to keep pace with Mr. Ehrlich, who was elected on a moderate platform.
"At this time, we will extend an olive branch and give him a honeymoon period," he said. "We will work as much as possible with him."
Republicans said they are not sure how the legislative session would work out, but they expressed optimism. "We have not seen this kind of dynamic in 36 years, and it's an unknown. To me, that's great," Mr. Stoltzfus said.

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