- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

As the Maryland and Virginia legislatures convene today in Richmond and Annapolis, governors and lawmakers in both states will confront some starkly unpleasant realities: deficits as far as the eye can see and a lack of money for new spending initiatives.
In Maryland, a new political era will officially begin one week from today, when Robert Ehrlich is sworn in as the state's first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew's resignation 34 years ago and Michael Steele becomes the first black lieutenant governor. But early indications are that the General Assembly, where Democrats still hold majorities of more than 2-1 in both chambers, plans to challenge Mr. Ehrlich's top priorities on the budget and social policy.
The primary battles will occur over the budget shortfall, currently estimated at nearly $1.8 billion through next year. Mr. Ehrlich has rightly ruled out increasing taxes to balance the budget. By contrast, the incoming speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael Busch, wants the legislature to consider a variety of tax-increase proposals, among them a "temporary" income-tax rate increase for those individuals deemed to be wealthy and an expansion of the sales tax to include services such as dry cleaning and legal work.
The tone for this debate could get nasty, with Mr. Ehrlich and Republicans and Democrats who are opposed to tax increases getting demonized much in the way that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the House Republican majority elected in 1994 were by the Democrats. "We'll say that's what [Ehrlich] is doing kicking people off dialysis to save this corporate welfare," incoming House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, Montgomery County Democrat, told The Washington Post.
In the coming weeks, Mr. Ehrlich will present the details of an ambitious and basically solid first-year agenda to the legislature. It will include legislation to facilitate the establishment of charter schools in Maryland, one of just 13 states without such a law. Mr. Ehrlich also wants to find ways to allow faith-based charities to gain a greater share of state money for social services and to have the U.S. attorney for Maryland prosecute gun crimes under federal laws with federal minimum sentences.
The new governor's most controversial initiative, however, is directly tied to solving Maryland's budgetary woes: his proposal to allow slots at race tracks, combined with subtle warnings that localities will lose state aid if their state representatives oppose Mr. Ehrlich's proposal for slots. Whether slots are enacted or not, (and we have our doubts about whether they should be) the cold, hard reality is that cuts in state aid must occur in order to close the budget gap.
In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Mark Warner confronts a Republican-controlled legislature: 23-17 in the Senate and 64-36 in the House of Delegates. As with Maryland, the first priority will be finding ways to balance the budget. In the wake of November's defeat of two referenda increasing the sales tax to pay for transportation, there is little support for increasing taxes. Instead, the legislature and the governor are expected to try to hammer out ways to close the state's remaining budgetary shortfall, estimated at more than $1 billion, through budget cuts. A major challenge will be reforming the Virginia Department of Transportation while coming up with ways to ease traffic congestion in Northern Virginia.
Some of the most intense debates are expected to occur on social issues. Last year, for example, Mr. Warner vetoed legislation banning the grisly practice of partial-birth abortion. The governor says he'll do the same thing if Republicans try to pass such a bill this year.
Also, with the support of Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, Republicans will be putting forward proposals to require that noncitizens who apply for driver's licenses prove that they are in the country legally. They will also introduce a bill to bar illegal aliens from attending college at lower in-state tuition rates. (At the University of Virginia, for example, in-state tuition is approximately $8,000 a year, while out-of-state tuition is $18,000.) Mr. Warner would do well to join the General Assembly in supporting both bills.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide