- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. wants to increase Maryland’s sales tax on gasoline by 12 cents a gallon, part of a revenue plan that also includes bringing 15,500 slot machines to the state and cutting government positions.

“There’s going to be cuts, there’s going to be slots, there’s going to be tax increases,” Mr. Miller said yesterday. “And it’s going to be tough for some people, but they’re going to have to suck it up and move forward for the good of the state.”

The proposal likely will pit Mr. Miller against Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who pledged upon taking office in January not to increase taxes or consider slots during his first year. Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat, said publicly yesterday that he would call for a special session when the assembly adjourns in mid-April to reach a revenue deal or otherwise resolve the state’s estimated $5 million budget shortfall.

“If we have a special session, it’s going to be this year,” he said. “Before next session, we should be back here.”

The proposed increase would bring the state’s gasoline sales tax to 35.5 cents a gallon.

The gas-tax proposal would raise $400 million for transportation projects annually. The slots proposal, which would raise $800 million each year for public schools, would have 15,500 machines at seven locations, including four racetracks, Mr. Miller said.

Mr. O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, have said it is too early to call for a special session and have asked for more time to evaluate the state’s budget crisis.

“It would be a pretty daunting task to put together a resolution to all of this without support of the chief executive of the state of Maryland,” Mr. Busch said.

Mr. O’Malley said he was not eager to throw his support behind Mr. Miller’s plan.

“I’d like to see how much we can get done in this session,” he said.

Mr. O’Malley transferred $1.2 billion from state reserves this year to buy time to figure out a solution to the fiscal crisis, and he said he would still like that time.

But Mr. Miller and his budget leaders have been skeptical about waiting for a more definite solution.

Mr. O’Malley has only enough money “to limp through” 2008, said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Mr. Miller was emphatic that slots would be part of the revenue plan, saying the Senate would not support other issues in the Democrat-controlled assembly if slots are “not part of a final solution.”

Political observers and acquaintances say Mr. Miller, who has been Senate president for 20 years, has defined himself with the issue and with four years until his retirement is not prepared to lose.

“It’s like a quest for the holy grail,” an aide to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who also was an ardent supporter of slot machines as a revenue source.

Mr. Miller was Mr. Ehrlich’s biggest supporter in his four-year effort to bring slots to Maryland and is now the only state leader championing the cause.

“Obviously he’s been very patient, but at the same time he thinks it’s another year lost,” said Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, a supporter of slots and Mr. Miller.

Slots legislation has resurfaced this year in alternative proposals, including plans to authorize gaming on boats and through nonprofit groups.

But Mr. Miller calls his proposal “the real McCoy.”

But slots are far from guaranteed with Mr. Busch still presiding in the House, where he has killed or re-crafted the Senate bills for the past four years.

“That obstacle is still there,” the Ehrlich staffer said.

Mr. Busch did not sound more receptive to slots yesterday.

Mr. Miller “has long been the champion of expanded gambling and slot machines in the state of Maryland, and he’ll remain to do that I guess,” Mr. Busch said. “But that’s his initiative.”

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