- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — The House Ways and Means Committee has removed a measure in its budget bill to extend the state’s 5 percent sales tax to many snack foods.

The state Senate gave preliminary approval to the proposal last week.

Harford County lawmakers lobbied hard to kill the tax plan, saying it was a threat to expansion plans at the Frito-Lay plant in Aberdeen, which has more than 400 workers and is the county’s largest employer.

Supporters of the tax say it would raise $16 million in annual revenue.

Legislation that would require electronic voting machines to produce paper records of ballots is pending in the Senate, but House leaders and Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr.’s administration say it likely is too late for such changes before the November presidential election.

Maryland’s March primaries were the first state elections to have all touch-screen machines — 16,000 in 1,787 precincts.

The equipment cost the state $55 million. Adding machines that would print paper receipts so voters could verify their ballots before they leave the voting places could cost up to $21 million, according to an analysis by legislative aides.

The bill requires the governor, not the local governments, to come up with the money.

“We need to go ahead now,” said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican and a co-sponsor of the legislation. “The more we delay, the less likely it is we can implement [the change] for November.”

Mr. Harris also said computer experts say they can make such changes within weeks.

“The technology is not that complicated,” said Mr. Harris, who introduced the bill after a report on the machines found them vulnerable to fraud.

The legislature hired Columbia-based RABA Technologies to study the safety of computer voting systems. The firm reported in January that the machines, made by Diebold Election Systems of Ohio, are accurate and secure.

House lawmakers say it is impossible to install the new technology by the Nov. 2 general election. Their version of the bill calls for a paper trail in time for the 2006 election.

The Ehrlich administration also says seven months is not enough time. Furthermore, the Federal Election Commission has yet to issue standards on how the records should be printed, said Joseph M. Getty, Mr. Ehrlich’s director of policy.

A spokesman for Diebold declined to speculate on how long it would take to implement a system with paper records, but agreed that federal standards are needed before the changes can be made.

The Diebold machines have built-in printers, which are used to print a paper audit of the election at its conclusion. The company spokesman also said it is technologically possible for the machines to be modified to provide a piece of paper showing that someone had voted, though it has yet to be done.

As an alternative, Mr. Harris suggests that the legislation could temporarily require only one voting machine per precinct to print paper receipts.

He thinks the alternative plan would reduce the cost to about $2 million and would address concerns about the machines being vulnerable to systematic fraud.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, has filed income tax claims of $130 million against MCI/WorldCom, but does not expect payment soon because the company is in bankruptcy.

The claim was filed by the comptroller’s office in a New York bankruptcy court and is based on court victories won by the office seeking taxes from corporations that use Delaware holding companies to shield income earned in Maryland from the state corporate income tax.

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