- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The head of Maryland’s Democratic Party says a “major split” has occurred within the party because party members failed to compromise with the Ehrlich administration on taxes and slots.

Democratic Party Chairman Isiah “Ike” Leggett places much of the blame on House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, who insisted upon a $670 million tax increase in the 2004 General Assembly’s waning days.

“My view would have been to put together a comprehensive agreement,” Mr. Leggett said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George’s County Democrat, agreed yesterday with Mr. Leggett, but called the party a diverse group with a “big tent” philosophy.

“We definitely need an increase in taxes, but not as dramatic as what was proposed by the speaker,” Mr. Miller said.

The proposed sales and income tax increase — the biggest in Maryland history — passed in the House but stalled in the Senate.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, promised to veto the tax proposal.

“I just believe [Mr. Busch’s message] was too complex, and the Senate and the governor needed to work [more] on it before pushing it to a vote,” said Mr. Miller, the Democrat in the General Assembly who most supported Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to increase state revenue by putting 15,500 slot machines at racetracks and emporiums.

Mr. Busch refuted the idea that the party has suffered under his leadership and said his tax package was responsible.

“First of all, I think the Democratic Party is larger than what takes place in Annapolis,” said Mr Busch.

He also said Mr. Leggett should rearrange his priorities.

“I think what the good chair of the party should be focusing on is the governor of the state, not bringing a compromise to [increase] revenue,” he said.

Mr. Busch’s plan called for an increase from 5 percent to 6 percent in sales taxes and motor-vehicle titling taxes. The plan also called for increasing the income tax from 4.75 percent to 6 percent on the state’s highest wage earners, to pay for a nearly $1 billion shortfall left by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

“Somewhere along the line people have to come to the realization that you have to pay for your services,” Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Ehrlich has said slots revenue is the best method for the state to raise $800 million. However, Mr. Busch and the House’s Ways and Means Committee killed the proposal the past two years.

Mr. Leggett said the defeat of Mr. Busch’s tax proposals was a low point in the session for Democrats but there were no major gains or losses “one way or the other.”

He also said it is “too early to say” whether the failed tax plan hurt Democrats.

“I think what the party has to do is go out and make its case that slots are not going to solve the problem,” Mr. Leggett said.

He downplayed Mr. Ehrlich’s legislative victories, including the plan to rehabilitate prisoners to reduce the state’s recidivism rate and the plan to charge homeowners $2.50 a month to improve wastewater treatment plants to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

“Those are layups,” he said. “I don’t give a great deal of credit for that. It is like motherhood and apple pie; how can you go wrong with those types of moderate positions?”

Republican political strategist Kevin Igoe disagreed.

“If [the initiatives] are good for the state, then they should not be trivialized,” Mr. Igoe said. “Poor Ike. I feel sorry for him. He has got Mike Busch way off in left field. He has Mike Miller trying to make sense of things, then he has got to deal with criticism that the party has no message.”

Mr. Igoe also said Mr. Busch has branded the Maryland Democrats as “the party of higher taxes.”

Mr. Ehrlich is the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years, and during his first two years has had difficulty passing legislation in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Still, Mr. Igoe thinks the slot defeat translates into an important stand for the governor.

“The other side of the slots issue is preventing tax increases,” Mr. Igoe said. “And that is where Bob Ehrlich comes off as a huge winner to Maryland taxpayers.”

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