- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — The man who killed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s slot-machine plan isn’t budging from his go-slow approach to gambling, still suggesting that higher taxes are a better cure than slots for Maryland’s budget ills.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch continues to be the perfect foil to the antitax Mr. Ehrlich, who has said his plan to collect budget-balancing revenues of $700 million a year from slot machines at horse-racing tracks could be revived and approved in a special legislative session. All that’s needed is a “change of heart” in the speaker, the Republican governor has said.

“I would doubt it,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Mr. Busch said lawmakers and academics will study the slots issue over the summer and could craft a new slots bill for the next legislative session in January.

“We will take our time to thoroughly go over the numbers and compare ourselves to other states,” he said. “It will give us the opportunity to have more control, more oversight.”

The study could keep the state from collecting revenue from slots for years, but Mr. Busch said a delay doesn’t matter because it would take about two years to build slots casinos.

Mr. Busch also said some tax increases will be unavoidable, especially if lawmakers keep their promises for new roads and better mass transit. He said it might take an increase of 1 cent on the sales-tax rate or an increase of 5 cents or more on the gasoline-tax rate.

“If you are going to accomplish the goals you want for your transportation system, you are going to need a revenue source for your transportation trust fund,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich has said that tax increases — particularly in sales and income taxes — are out of the question. He is expected to demonstrate his antitax resolve May 21, when he is expected to veto $137 million in new corporate taxes approved by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Mr. Ehrlich has not opposed all tax increases. This week, he voted to increase the state property-tax rate from 8.4 cents to 13.2 cents per $100 of assessed value, though he has promised to repeal it next year.

Still, most of the Ehrlich administration’s budget balancing will be effected by spending cuts.

After cutting the budget for fiscal 2004, which begins July 1, the state faces a nearly $1 billion shortfall in fiscal 2005, and then $1.1 billion and $1.5 billion in the following years.

Without slots or new taxes, the spending cuts will noticeably reduce the level of government services enjoyed by residents, budget officials say.

“There are some [agencies] where you just can’t cut anymore, where you might as well send in the pink slips and say, ‘Closed for business,’” Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said at a Board of Public Works meeting this week.

Mr. Busch sees the trade-off in a different way.

“Everybody wants the services, but nobody wants to pay for them, or they want to pay for them with someone else’s money,” Mr. Busch said.

The speaker said he offered to save the slots bill if the governor allowed a sales-tax increase, but Mr. Ehrlich refused.

Mr. Busch said some type of tax increase will be needed to meet a mandate to increase funding for poor school districts and equalize funding between rich and poor districts. The Thornton plan, named for the Howard University professor who led a two-year study on how to improve education and close the gap in spending between poor and wealthy counties, will cost billions of dollars over the next several years.

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