- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has fulfilled promises to reduce government and avoid tax increases, but his first year also has been defined by the defeat of his centerpiece legislation to bring slot-machine gambling to the state.

“The key to Ehrlich’s popularity in his first year is that Bob Ehrlich has stood for Maryland taxpayers against a continuing Democratic chorus of ‘we need tax increases,’” Republican strategist Kevin Igoe said.

Mr. Ehrlich’s election victory in November gave Republicans their first Maryland governorship in more than 30 years, but also brought the expected struggle with the Democratic majority in the General Assembly and the burden of cutting a $1 billion budget shortfall inherited from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch led Democratic opposition, which called for tax increases to reduce the shortfall and defeated the slots legislation in the Ways and Means Committee.

Mr. Busch rejected Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal, which projected a $700 million profit in the first year to improve public education by putting slots at four racetracks, because he thought the track owners would make too much money.

Mr. Busch appeared ready to compromise over the summer, saying he would support the plan if the state ran the gambling emporiums or if the machines were put at more than the few tracks designated by the governor. However, the House speaker reversed his stance because he again thought racetrack owners would make too much money on the deal.

Still, Mr. Ehrlich remains optimistic and says he want to work with Mr. Busch.

“Hopefully, this will be the year,” Mr. Ehrlich said earlier this month. “There is a lot of money here. People are just tired. It’s a silly thing. I believe we can get a program passed.”

Though the governor remains convinced that slots can pay for his education-reform policy, he also appears ready for a compromise on where to put slots.

“Clearly, my predisposition is tracks,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “If an agreement can be ultimately reached, it will be a combination” of racetracks and other locations.

Mr. Ehrlich already has support from the 3,000-member Maryland Restaurant Association and 300-member Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association.

“I think pressure is going to keep building on liberals to support slots,” Mr. Igoe said. “The only alternative is more budget cuts to the programs they like.”

Mr. Ehrlich met his promise to cut spending, including the unpopular decision to slash more than $50 million from the Maryland Higher Education System — $40 million from the University of Maryland system, $9.7 million from community colleges and $3.6 million from college programs.

The cuts are expected to result in major tuition increases. For example, in-state tuition at the University of Maryland’s flagship College Park campus will increase by $850 to $6,759 a year.

Mr. Ehrlich also eliminated 3,200 unfilled positions since taking office in January. Fewer than 100 of those jobs have been refilled, but the cuts equal a 4 percent reduction in state government.

The biggest cuts were made at the Department of Human Resources, where 225 vacant positions were eliminated, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which took a $90 million cut.

“He is holding down the growth of the budget,” Mr. Igoe said.

Mr. Ehrlich’s approval rating is at about 63 percent.

“Keeping with the governor’s commitment to make government more efficient, we have reduced spending by more than $1 billion in 10 months,” Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula recently told The Washington Times.

Mr. DiPaula said he is confident the remaining $786 million deficit can be reduced through cuts and by collecting money owed the state.

“Primarily, it will be spending reductions,” he said of the budget proposal, still a work in progress. “We are also making sure we collect on debts owed to the state.”

Mr. DiPaula did not say whether Mr. Ehrlich would cut more jobs or budgets to that end. The administration will present a final budget to the legislature by Jan. 21.

If Mr. Ehrlich had one clear-cut victory in the first legislative session, it was funding the Inter-County Connector linking interstates 270 and 95.

The $1.8 billion project had been in the planning phase for at least 40 years and, when complete, is expected to alleviate gridlock in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and help stimulate the region’s high-tech industry by improving access.

Funds for the highway project come from a combination of state and federal sources. Construction is expected to begin in 2006, but lawmakers must replenish the state’s Transportation Fund to complete the project.

Though the road project has bipartisan support, Mr. Ehrlich faced Democratic opposition several other times.

Senate Democrats rejected his choice of Lynn Y. Buhl, a former Chrysler Corporation lawyer, to run the Department of the Environment, a decision that marked the first time in 30 years that a panel rejected a Maryland governor’s appointment.

Mr. Ehrlich also could not pass a national Republican initiative to open more charter schools. Right now, Maryland has no clear mechanism to review charter-school applications, and the administration has not said whether it will re-introduce the legislation.

It also is not clear whether Mr Ehrlich will attempt again to toughen gun laws and reform the juvenile-justice system. The General Assembly stripped funding from the juvenile-justice legislation and killed the charter school and gun-reform measures.

Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal to stop gun violence, known as Project Exile, attempts to impose longer jail sentences on those using weapons to commit crimes. The bill was rejected by Democrats who wanted even tougher legislation.

The program has been a success in Richmond, where gun-related crime has decreased by at least 10 percent since 1997.

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