- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley may have called for a “new day” and more unity in Annapolis, but the “Two Mikes” who run the General Assembly are battling over how to resolve the state’s budget deficits.

The split between House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. became clear this week when Mr. Miller, Southern Maryland Democrat, proposed legalizing slot-machine gambling to reduce the state’s billion-dollar budget shortfalls.

“The Senate’s not going to be the problem,” Mr. Miller said yesterday. “The problem’s going to be on the other side where you have so many more new members … who are going to be very nervous about casting tough votes.”

Such wrangling is nothing new for Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch, who have battled over slots and taxes since Mr. Busch was elected speaker in 2003.

Mr. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, has defeated slots legislation by Mr. Miller and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican, the past four years.

He has been noncommittal about the legislation this year but has clearly sided with Mr. O’Malley, who has used $1.2 billion in state reserves to plug an estimated $1.3 million deficit next year and who has asked for a year before considering tax increases and legalizing slots.

Mr. Miller has said one year is too long and made that obvious Wednesday when introducing his proposal to bring 15,500 slot machines to Maryland and increase the state’s gasoline tax by 12 cents, to 35.5 cents a gallon.

“People who go slow on solving the state’s budget problems are just making the hole deeper and making it that much more difficult to climb out of the deficit that we’re going to encounter next year,” he said.

Mr. Miller said he would call for a special session after the General Assembly convenes in mid-April to pass his legislative package, which attempts also to reduce the state’s long-term, $4 billion deficit.

In addition, his proposal calls for cuts to school-construction funding and lifting a freeze on in-state college tuition, two of Mr. O’Malley’s top priorities.

Mr. Busch supports Mr. O’Malley’s wait-and-see plan.

“The House has done its due diligence on all major issues,” he said. “We’re trying to work in coordination with this administration, which I think has taken the right, judicious and practical approach to solving the problems of Maryland.”

Mr. Busch also supports a $1 tax on cigarettes to expand health care, new fees on development to clean the Chesapeake Bay and the freeze on in-state tuition.

Mr. Miller has frequently said he supports slots as an alternative to raising taxes too much, but Mr. Busch has said he will support slots only if it’s part of a revenue package.

“It’s not a partisan battle as much as it is a [battle of] the leadership of the two chambers,” said Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican.

The gas tax appears to have broad support, and House lawmakers seem open to at least discussing slots this year.

“There are some legislators who are just anxious to get [slots] over, get it over now,” Mr. O’Malley said. “I’d like to see how much we can get done this session; I think it’s a little premature to talk about [slots] right now.”

Mr. Miller said he will wait for the governor’s support but it must come soon.

“We have a governor who was elected [and] who promised to support slots at the racetracks,” he said. “That’s the reason people voted for him. That’s why he got blue-collar Democrats to vote for him. We’re going to help him keep his campaign promise.”


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