- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

ANNAPOLIS The House of Delegates yesterday approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed $22.5 billion state budget despite solid opposition from Republican lawmakers to the first budget submitted by a governor from their own party since 1968.
Republican leaders, who spoke during limited debate before the House and sent the budget to the state Senate on a 94-45 roll-call vote, blamed changes made by the House for their opposition.
Mr. Ehrlich proposed a $165 million increase in the property tax and $85 million in higher business fees to help balance the budget in the face of declining state revenue. The House amended Mr. Ehrlich's bill to increase the business fees to bring in $225 million in new revenue during the next fiscal year.
Several members of the House Republican Caucus yesterday voted against the budget bill, which includes a 5-cent increase in the real-property tax to help close a $2 billion shortfall. House Republicans said they will protest against proposed corporate-tax increases at a press conference Tuesday.
Lawmakers said they will not burden their constituents with more taxes, despite Mr. Ehrlich's support for the increase.
The governor, who met with editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Thursday, said he was confident fellow Republicans in the legislature would support him in the end on the property-tax increase.
"One point I have made to Republicans from Day One is being in the minority is the easiest thing. … Now Republicans are part of the government and you have to deal with reality," Mr. Ehrlich said.
But Republicans yesterday said they unequivocally oppose all tax increases, with the exception of the gasoline tax.
"The people of Maryland are being taken for a ride," Delegate David G. Boschert, Anne Arundel County Republican, said of the proposed tax increase. "We cannot tax our way into prosperity by placing the burden on our working families. It is bad fiscal policy."
"This is the biggest property-tax increase in years and it could not have come at a worse time," said Delegate Herbert H. McMillan, Anne Arundel County Republican.
Instead, they are proposing alternatives for the governor and Democrats to consider, including spending cuts and revenue transfers.
In a House that is two-thirds Democratic, however, these proposals are usually ignored, they said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, staunchly opposes the governor's plan to legalize slot machines at horse-racing tracks, and the House's version of the budget bill did not include funding from slots. Republicans yesterday said they would prefer slots to tax increases.
"This is not the governor's budget and these are not the governor's tax increases. The House's refusal to even consider the governor's slots proposal eliminated a revenue stream that could have mitigated our tax burden," Mr. McMillan said.
Mr. McMillan's amendments to move $70 million from the rainy day fund and transfer $150 million in transportation revenue to the annuity bond fund for debt service, among other things, also were rejected by the House this week.
Democrats commended Mr. Ehrlich for recognizing that some new revenue was essential to balancing the budget.
"No one was more anti-tax than the governor during the campaign," Delegate Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Democrat, said. "He did make the transition from campaigning to governing."

Legislation that would legalize slot machines at four racetracks in Maryland is moving forward in the state Senate.
Opponents of the slot machine bill tried several times yesterday to amend the legislation, including an effort to bring the issue to a referendum for voter approval. But each attempt was soundly defeated, making it clear the chamber will approve the plan.
The Senate proposal would authorize 3,500 machines at the Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft racetracks. Another thousand would go to a racetrack in Allegany County when it is built. About 48 percent of the revenue would go to education.
The Senate is expected to vote on the measure today.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is one of the biggest backers of the slots plan, along with Mr. Ehrlich
The House is expected to generate the most opposition to the bill.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday voted 6-5 in favor of a measure that would reduce penalties for people who use marijuana for medical purposes. A matching bill passed the full House of Delegates earlier this week.
The committee killed a similar bill last year before the election altered its membership,
The bill would allow people charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana to present evidence of a medical condition that can be helped by smoking the drug.
The maximum penalty for possession of marijuana for medical purposes would be a $100 fine. There would be no jail term.
Since 1970, marijuana has been a controlled dangerous substance under state and federal drug prohibitions. Simple possession or use of marijuana can bring penalties of up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine.
Supporters of the bill say smoking marijuana can ease symptoms of chronic diseases such as HIV or AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or Crohn's disease. They also believe marijuana can relieve severe nausea for patients undergoing treatment for cancer, allowing them to keep down pills and food.
The bill has bipartisan support and opposition. In the committee, one Republican joined five Democrats voting in favor of it. Three Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee also must approve the bill before it is introduced to the Senate floor for debate.
Mr. Ehrlich has said he supports the concept of medical marijuana, but he has not taken a position on the specific bill.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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