- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2003

As Maryland begins its new fiscal year, Gov. Robert Ehrlich is once again the bearer of bad news about the state’s fiscal condition. Mr. Ehrlich has ordered Comptroller William Donald Schaefer to withhold nearly $650 million in payments to state agencies. While schools will not lose any state funding, most other aspects of state government — everything from higher education to corrections — could lose up to 10 percent of their funding.

Not surprisingly, the state’s Democratic establishment is not taking the bad budgetary news well. House Speaker Michael Busch of Anne Arundel County is downright indignant. “In my 17 years in the legislature, this is the first time in my knowledge this has ever taken place,” Mr. Busch declared. “If you’re a state or university employee, you’re sitting here trying to figure out what’s going to happen.”

You have to hand it to Mr. Busch: He’s got plenty of chutzpah. No political entity in the state bears more responsibility for the budget gridlock than the General Assembly. Mr. Busch and House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, Montgomery County Democrat, fought successfully to kill Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal to permit slots at Maryland race tracks. They also refused to consider any reasonable compromise put forward by the governor, including his offer to guarantee that $700 million in new revenue from the machines would be spent on public schools over the next few years.

By opposing slots, Messrs. Busch and Barve hoped to back Mr. Ehrlich into a political corner, forcing him to choose between painful spending cuts and tax increases. Or, as Mr. Barve rather indelicately put it in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, if Mr. Ehrlich opposed the Democrats’ tax-increase agenda, then “We’ll say that’s what [the governor] is doing — kicking people off dialysis to save this corporate welfare.” After Messrs. Busch and Barve killed the governor’s slots bill, they teamed up with Senate President Mike Miller in the waning days of this year’s legislative session in an effort to foist $137 million worth of tax increases on the people of Maryland. But Mr. Ehrlich — who campaigned against raising taxes — made good on his promise to veto the tax increase bill.

Mr. Ehrlich has taken a number of steps to avoid the potential fiscal train wreck created by the Democrats’ intransigence on budgetary matters. The governor has promised local officials worried about reductions in state aid that he will try to help them get federal assistance. He has also raised the possibility of selling state property, such as Baltimore Washington International Airport and the World Trade Center building in Baltimore. Absent a dramatic change in the legislature, where the Democratic Party holds majorities of more than 2-1, these manufactured budget crises will become routine. Mr. Ehrlich continues to do the right thing: Resist the Democrats’ efforts to wallop Marylanders with tax increases.

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