- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich wants slots. House Speaker Michael E. Busch wants a statewide tax increase. That stalemate is how the last session of the Maryland General Assembly ended and it’s how the new one begins tomorrow.

That standoff and how it plays out — Will the two men compromise on new revenue? Or will Maryland end up cutting away at state spending like Virginia did last year? — will impact almost every issue facing lawmakers, including the deficit, education reform, the Chesapeake Bay, crime and a proposed new state agency.

One big priority for the governor, who enters into his second session with a more ambitious legislative agenda than he did last year, is a proposed new state agency: a Department of Disabilities.

“It will help streamline services,” said Mr. Ehrlich, who campaigned on reducing the size of government in Maryland. He promises to discuss the new agency further in his State of the State address on Jan. 21.

Kenneth H. Masters, chief legislative officer for Mr. Ehrlich’s administration, said the new disabilities department would operate with a small staff but deliver services “in a more effective and efficient way.”

The Virginia General Assembly also convenes tomorrow, and the state budget is expected to take center stage during the 60-day session, too.

Details on Maryland’s new disabilities department come as Mr. Ehrlich last week announced he would add a $2.50 monthly surcharge on each residential and commercial water bill to upgrade municipal sewage-treatment plants around the state to reduce the amount of nutrient runoff, or nitrogen, into the Bay.

Mr. Ehrlich said the goal is to “restore the Chesapeake Bay to its rightful status as a great national treasure, one which generations of Marylanders can both enjoy and protect.”

Upgrading the 66 plants would cost as much as $1 billion, but the surcharge alone will not be enough, Mr. Masters said.

The plan is consistent with Mr. Ehrlich’s efforts to satisfy his conservative following and fulfill a campaign promise not to increase taxes.

He has instead tried to increase state revenue by raising fees, including the one on sewerage, which Democratic opponents now refer to as the “flush tax.”

Whether it’s the surcharge or the hotly contested slots issue, Mr. Ehrlich still must find a way to get legislation passed in a General Assembly controlled by Democrats.

Democrats, led by Mr. Busch, of Anne Arundel County, defeated Mr. Ehrlich’s slot-machine legislation in the last session. And the political wrangling could get worse because Mr. Ehrlich has circumvented Democratic leadership and used executive orders to fill several high-level positions.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, thinks Mr. Ehrlich will raise corporate or business taxes to balance the budget.

“He has taken sales and personal-income taxes off the table and says he would be willing to work with the legislature on other forms of taxes,” Mr. Currie said. “I think [Mr. Ehrlich] realizes that he has to support some form of revenue raising.”

Mr. Currie said transportation will likely be the second-biggest issue in this session.

“We know that there are transportation needs around the state, and community and elected leaders have all expressed a strong desire to address the congestion,” he said. “We would be willing to support raising some form of revenue — gas taxes and registration fees or titling taxes.”

With the General Assembly convening tomorrow, Mr. Ehrlich has said only that the Intercounty Connector is a priority and that he will reintroduce the slots legislation.

However, one of Mr. Ehrlich’s legislative aides told The Washington Times the slots bill would be similar to last year’s, which included a plan to put 11,500 machines at the four tracks: 3,500 each at Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft, and 1,000 in Allegany County.

The aide also said the governor has indicated that he would be willing to consider alternatives.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George’s County is one of the state’s top-ranking Democrats who has supported Mr. Ehrlich’s slots proposal, which the governor hopes will generate enough profit to reduce the $786 million budget deficit and pay for the public education reform plan known as the Thornton initiative.

The initiative requires an increase in state aid to schools by $1.3 billion over six years.

Ehrlich officials said the governor also is considering legislation to preserve the historic-preservation tax credit and to help convert sites contaminated by industrial pollutants, or brownfields, into viable real estate.

Mr. Masters said the administration is also working on a drug-treatment initiative to put more offenders in rehabilitation programs instead of jail.

“Keeping these folks incarcerated is expensive and we can provide treatment at a lesser cost,” he said.

The governor also wants to address the problem of how medical-malpractice rulings are increasing insurance costs for doctors.

Republican strategist Kevin Igoe agreed that medical-liability reform is a “big issue,” but said slots and the state budget will be the “driving issues.”

He gave Mr. Ehrlich’s slots proposal “about a 50-50 chance” of passing.

“Clearly, it will pass the Senate, and of course you have the governor, that’s two of the big three,” Mr. Igoe said. “So it all comes down to Mike Busch and the House Democratic caucus.”

He expects Mr. Busch to play a major role again.

“Mike Busch has become the Don Quixote of Maryland fiscal policy — tilting at the windmills of new revenue sources,” Mr. Igoe said. “The question the Democrats have to answer is: If you are opposed to slots, how do you fund the programs you want?”

He also said Mr. Busch’s obstructionist policy on slots may backfire.

“The Democrats keep pushing tax increases, and that keeps helping Bob Ehrlich,” Mr. Igoe said. Mr. Ehrlich “is the only thing standing between taxpayers and a huge tax increase.”

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