- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The Senate unanimously approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s budget yesterday, but most Republicans voted against two accompanying bills that will provide new revenues.

“I just don’t think we should be expanding taxes right now,a” Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris said.

The Senate gave its full support to the original bill by Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican. But the companion bill that included a tax on salted snacks passed by a 30-17 vote.

Mr. Harris joined 11 other Republicans and five Democrats in voting against the supplemental bill to Mr. Ehrlich’s $23.6 million budget.

The other bill, which closes tax loopholes, passed on another 30-17 vote.

Meanwhile, the House yesterday approved Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to raise millions of dollars for transportation projects by increasing motor vehicle fees.

The plan was approved 72-69, with the help of 31 Democrats, and is expected to generate $220 million a year for road projects and mass transit.

“The governor has shown strong leadership in a hostile political environment,” said House Minority Whip Anthony J. McDonnell. “He’s shown his ability to work across the aisle.”

The legislation still is being negotiated in a Senate committee.

Mr. Ehrlich planned to raise more than $300 million a year for transportation projects, but a House committee stripped $83 million from the proposal by taking out traffic-violation fees and drunken-driving fees. Committee members also removed a proposal to funnel rental-car sales taxes, worth $32 million, into the fund.

The proposal still includes an increase of about $23.50 in the annual registration fee for carsand trucks. Motorists would payan average of $128 to register their cars every other year, up from $81.

Mr. Ehrlich talked about raising the gasoline tax, which has stayed at 231/2 cents a gallon for 12 years, when he ran for office two years ago, but he has a scrapped the idea because of the uncertainty of fuel market prices.

The “snack tax” will be applied to foods at the time of purchase, which the state has not done since repealing the tax in 1997.

“The governor has made it quite clear that he doesn’t want to see an expansion of the sales tax,” Mr. Harris said.

Sens. Robert H. Kittleman and Sandra B. Schrader, Howard Republicans, voted with Democrats for the snack tax.

“I felt like there was more good [in the bill] than there was bad,” Mr. Kittleman said.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell said the administration submitted a balanced budget and it is “unlikely” the governor will allow such a tax on snacks.

“It is a sales tax increase, and the governor has repeatedly stated that he will not support an increase in the sales tax,” Mr. Fawell said.

“It is a regressive tax and there is no need for it.”

Mr. Ehrlich has touted the need for slot machines at four racetracks and two off-track sites to pay for such spending programs as the $1.3 billion Thornton Education Act.

The slots proposal is awaiting debate in the House Ways and Means Committee, similar to last year when House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, led the opposition in killing the bill.

Mr. Busch was pressured by House Republicans on Thursday to at least allow a floor vote on the bill.

James “Chip” DiPaula, the governor’s budget secretary, has also said the administration budget is fully funded because Mr. Ehrlich cut excessive government expenditures by predecessor Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, so the snack tax is unnecessary.

Still, some Democratic lawmakers say the 5 percent sales tax on salted snack items such as chips, pretzels and nuts would bring in as much as $16 million in much-needed revenue.

Sen. Nancy C. Jacobs had been the loudest in opposition to the tax, saying it would be devastating to the state economy.

“This issue is too important to take up like this,” said Mrs. Jacobs, a Republican representing Harford County, where Frito-Lay is the largest manufacturing employer.

She said the company makes mostly salted snacks, employs 386 full-time workers and is considering expanding its Harford County facility.

There were 300 amendments to Mr. Ehrlich’s original budget, amounting to $100 million in increased fees.

The bills have been sent to the House Appropriations Committee for approval.

• • •

Also yesterday, House lawmakers vote 143-5 to approve Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal to charge homeowners $30 a year to raise money for sewage plant upgrades. A Senate committee is working on the proposal.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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