- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday committed his office to winning a budget showdown with the Democrat-controlled legislature and vowed to veto most tax increases and attempts to water down his agenda.
"Our real fight is coming now," Mr. Ehrlich said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
The Republican governor will insist on deeper spending cuts and new revenue from slot-machine gambling at horse-racing tracks to help close a $2 billion budget gap next year and an estimated $1.3 billion shortfall the following year.
Mr. Ehrlich stressed that his agenda is still alive in the General Assembly despite moves to derail his slots bill, weaken his charter-school initiative and undermine his gun-crime bill and juvenile-justice reforms.
"We feel good about the fact that every major priority we have is still there, still viable, given the votes and given the disparity between the parties and the partisan breakdown," he said.
The governor jabbed a finger as he faulted the Democratic response to the budget crisis, noting that he already has cut spending by $430 million and is considering more cuts.
"They have no agenda besides taxes," Mr. Ehrlich said. "Don't come back to us with the 'wish list' on taxes because it is a nonstarter."
Democratic lawmakers have suggested raising taxes on income, sales, gasoline, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. In addition, the House is considering a corporate-tax-increase package that calls for more than $200 million in higher fees and closed tax shelters.
Mr. Ehrlich has promised a veto for many of these measures, but has proposed increasing the state's real property tax rate from 8 cents to 13 cents per $100 assessed value.
Mr. Ehrlich, 45, had said he would consider raising some corporate taxes. But yesterday, he shot down each tax-raising item of the House package.
"We are not crazy about any of the corporate taxes," he said.
He defended his proposal for a nickel increase in the property-tax rate, a concession in budget negotiations that has sparked some criticism from the governor's Republican base. Republican lawmakers have threatened to oppose a budget that includes both a property-tax increase and slots.
Mr. Ehrlich yesterday said the increase he proposed was the "least onerous," and those who voted for him would understand he had inherited a bad fiscal situation. "That is the least offensive of a long list of pretty offensive [tax-increase] alternatives," he said.
The proposed increase in the property tax would save about $165 million in the general fund that would have subsidized the lower property-tax rate, which has not been increased in 22 years. The state constitution requires that property-tax revenue be used to pay off bonds, but past governors used general funds for debt service to avoid raising the property-tax rate.
"We are about truth in budgeting … and oppose subsidies," Mr. Ehrlich said.
The governor has endured some defeats by the Democrat-majority legislature, most notably the Senate's recent rejection of Lynn Buhl for environment secretary the first time the legislative body ever turned down a gubernatorial nominee.
Mr. Ehrlich said there will be "repercussions" for Democrats who switched votes under pressure from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George's Democrat.
Still, his relationship with Democratic lawmakers is "pretty good," he said. "It has been pretty much exactly what we thought."
In his eight weeks in office, Mr. Ehrlich has suffered other setbacks.
One of his top three priorities for the legislative year, Project Exile, is being drastically revised by Senate Democrats. Another priority, charter schools, has suffered blow after blow in House and Senate committees that have either revised it completely or killed it.
A key component of Mr. Ehrlich's charter plan establishing multiple chartering authorities was narrowed in the House Ways and Means Committee to make only local school boards the chartering authority. The revision makes the governor's bill identical to one sponsored by Delegate John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel Republican, for the past five years.
The Senate version of the Ehrlich charter bill died in the education committee. This week, the full Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Roy Dyson, Calvert County Democrat, that also would create a sole chartering authority and has been criticized by charter supporters as being weak.
Mr. Ehrlich said he prefers a bill with multiple chartering authorities because many local school boards have resisted the charter-school movement. But he said he is willing to compromise as long as the final bill includes some elements from his bill.
"I will veto a weak charter bill I would rather start over. This is important to us," he said.
He added that there is a 50-50 chance that a charter-school law will be enacted this year. "We are pushing a pretty strong wall here," he said, referring to opposition from the state teachers union.
The governor predicted that a slots bill nearly identical to his proposal would pass the General Assembly and that the Senate's alternative slots bill, which would cut the share for track owners, would not bring slots to Maryland.
"Every leg of the stool has to work for this bill to work," he said, referring to the breeders, track owners and local governments that have a stake in saving racing with slots.
Mr. Ehrlich said his administration was in a "monumental battle" to change political culture in the state. "I have a lot of the same elements against this administration that were fighting us in the campaign."

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