- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Senate Republicans say they will attempt to block tax increases during budget debates tomorrow, as tension increases over Maryland’s fiscal future.

“We’re planning on something to attempt to give people a choice and obviate any necessity for tax increases,” said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican.

Democrats, who control the House, Senate and governor’s office, agreed that some form of tax increase is needed to close a $1.5 billion budget gap in 2009.

House Republicans made an effort last week to avoid tax increases by filing an amendment to the budget to cap spending increases at 1.5 percent in the fiscal 2008 budget. The measure failed on a vote of 110 to 29.

Senate Republicans are considering a similar move and will make a final decision today in preparation for the budget debates tomorrow.

“The essence of what we’re trying to prove is that the fiscal crisis can be improved without raising taxes,” Mr. Brinkley said.

An array of tax increases has been discussed this year, including one on the sales tax and another on the gasoline tax. None is expected to pass before the General Assembly session ends next month. But they could become part of a special session that might also focus on legalizing slot machines to generate state revenue.

Budget tensions have simmered under the surface of the otherwise staid 90-day session.

Senate leaders have pushed for a special session this year to fix the budget, but Gov. Martin O’Malley and House leaders have asked for one year before deciding to increase taxes and legalize slots.

“I’d like to deal with it sooner, but you have to get the House, the governor and the Senate to agree,” said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate’s budget committee. “That’s a lot easier said than done.”

The upcoming conference committee meetings between Senate and House negotiators will likely show the extent of the divide between the chambers.

Democrats who are part of the secretive Fiscal Leaders Committee have met infrequently this session because of questions about when to fix the budget and whether to include Republicans in the meetings.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, has said he would block many of House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s legislative priorities, including a $1-a-pack cigarette-tax increase to pay for expanded health care coverage. Mr. Busch is an Anne Arundel Democrat.

“I’m the business person; I don’t spend money I don’t have,” Mr. Miller said last week. “To me, this is building an addition on your house when you can’t even pay the mortgage.”

Other splits between the House and Senate versions of the budget include two O’Malley budget priorities: increased money for stem-cell research and delayed funding for the Intercounty Connector.

The House chose to fund the extra $10 million in stem-cell research Mr. O’Malley asked for; the Senate did not.

The House chose not to defer $53 million in spending for the proposed highway, which would have come out of the Transportation Trust Fund; the Senate did.

Republicans said they were disappointed by the choice not to replenish the fund.

“For us to roll over now is a big mistake,” said Delegate Gail H. Bates, Howard County Republican and ranking member of the House’s budget committee. “I think they could have cut out more and still paid back the Transportation Trust Fund.”

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was accused by Democrats of raiding the fund to balance the budget.

The Senate is expected to pass its version of the budget Friday, then begin negotiating with the House to resolve differences.

State lawmakers must pass a balanced budget by April 2.


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