- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Maryland legislators expect to open the General Assembly tomorrow by debating such key issues as abortion, the death penalty and charter schools, but say nothing will dominate their work like solving the budget deficit.
"This session will be absolutely about the budget," said Delegate Alfred W. Redmer, House minority leader and Baltimore County Republican. "There are going to be some other things, and other initiatives are going to pop up. But clearly, the most pressing problem in the state is the fiscal picture."
The state already has a $500 million budget deficit that is expected to reach $1.3 billion in the fiscal year starting July 1.
Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has vowed that tax increases and cuts in state jobs will not be part of the budget he presents to the General Assembly on Jan. 17, two days after his inauguration.
Most lawmakers say they are eager to work with Mr. Ehrlich the state's first Republican governor in 34 years but some are dissatisfied with his plan to bring slot machines to selected racetracks and use the revenue to reduce the budget deficit.
Mr. Ehrlich thinks the plan can generate as much as $800 million.
Most of the money would come from selling licenses to operate slot machines at four racetracks one in Baltimore, two in Prince George's County and another at a proposed track in Allegany County.
Several Democrats, including Speaker-elect Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County, and Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus of the Eastern Shore, oppose slot machines.
Mr. Busch says the machines would generate just $400 million the first year, rejecting higher predictions from the Ehrlich administration.
"Before you go down that road, you have to look at that road," said Mr. Busch, who hopes for a long, thorough discussion before a decision on slots.
If the lawmakers and the Ehrlich administration agree on something, it's that slots alone will not fix the budget.
"There is no consensus right now [on fully closing the deficit]," said Delegate Kumar Barve, Gaithersburg Democrat. "And slot machines do not come close to closing the gap."
Among other issues that will emerge at this session:
Charter schools: Mr. Ehrlich plans to introduce legislation allowing the schools in Maryland, one of only 13 states without such a law. Charters have long been debated in the legislature. A bill passed in the House last year was referred by the Senate to a conference committee, which left the matter unresolved.
Faith-based charities: The issue is a priority for Mr. Ehrlich, who wants to establish an office reporting directly to him. The office would find ways to increase state aid to charities run by religious groups.
Project Exile: Mr. Ehrlich will propose that the U.S. attorney for Maryland prosecute gun crimes under federal laws with federal minimum sentences.
Death penalty: State prosecutors will ask lawmakers to draft legislation stating that a series of murders, such as the sniper killings in the Washington area, would qualify for the death penalty. Capital-punishment opponents will likely introduce legislation that would extend a moratorium on executions until lawmakers review a study on whether the death penalty is fairly imposed.
Abortion: Pro-life lawmakers will introduce bills to limit abortions. Likely to be included in the bill will be parental-notification before teenagers can get abortions and a ban on partial-birth abortions. The lawmakers also could try to eliminate budget money that pays for abortions under the state Medicaid program, though Mr. Ehrlich has expressed support for the program.
Many legislators, including Mr. Busch and Mr. Redmer, say they will make health care a priority.
Delegate Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's County Democrat, said he would oppose a proposal to switch from the state's largest Medicare provider, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, to a for-profit company. The pro-business Mr. Ehrlich is said to support the change.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he would prefer to get the Democrat-majority Senate to work with Mr. Ehrlich and ensure the budget passes on schedule. "Hopefully, we can learn from each other," he said. "The governor campaigned as a moderate; otherwise, he would not have been elected in Maryland. And we, as a Democratic legislature, intend to keep pace with him."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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