- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - A Republican plan to stave off future state budget problems by approving slot machine gambling was rejected yesterday by the Maryland Senate, which ultimately approved a spending plan that totals about $30.3 billion but leaves unsettled the question of how to cover future budget gaps.

The Senate has voted in years past to allow slot machines, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. may be slots’ biggest supporter in Annapolis. But even Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, voted against the Republican plan, which would have allowed small increases in state spending but held most spending in check.

Approval of the Republican plan likely would have meant tuition increases at state colleges, plus a delay in public school improvements approved by lawmakers in years past.

“We can solve this horrendous structural problem,” said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican, referring to the anticipated hole in the state pocketbook starting next year, when state spending is projected to outstrip tax receipts.

Republicans presented their plan as a way to avoid tax increases, although the plan relied on as much as $765 million a year in future years from slots taxes. The proposal was rebuffed in a 33-14 party-line vote.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s Democrat, called the plan “irresponsible” because it would have delayed promised improvements in education and other areas. Mr. Miller dismissed it as a “public relations” attempt.

The Senate ultimately approved a $30.3 billion spending plan that largely matches one passed by the House last week.

Both plans boost higher education funding to prevent tuition increases at state colleges, a cornerstone campaign promise of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Democrat. The two budgets also add nearly $500 million for kindergarten through 12-grade education improvements.

The differences between the two budgets are minor. Two of the biggest differences are a Senate decision to side with Mr. O’Malley and delay a $53 million payment on the Intercounty Connector highway linking Interstate 270 in Montgomery County with Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County. The House warned that a delay would be fiscally unsound.

The Senate went the other way on a House increase on stem-cell research. Mr. O’Malley and the House wanted a boost of $10 million on research funding, from $15 million to $25 million. The Senate trimmed the $10 million increase.

Another change is that House members voted not to delay a move to reduce limits on the amount of time Medicaid patients can stay in the hospital. Senators disagreed, setting up a $13 million difference.

Lawmakers now will set up committees to resolve disagreements. They have until April 2 to settle on a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Both spending plans drain most of Maryland’s spare cash and leave unanswered the question of how to make ends meet next year. Republicans have warned that a fiscal disaster is looming.

“Our choice is to make the tough decision now,” said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, Carroll and Frederick Republican, “or we’ll be back here dealing with tax increases.”

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Eastern Shore Republican, predicted: “Next year, you’re almost guaranteeing you’re going to have to raise taxes.”

Democrats conceded that higher taxes could be looming, but they argued that a spending freeze now would simply hurt residents.

Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery Democrat, said people don’t like taxes, but they do like public education, health care and efforts to clean the Chesapeake Bay.

“If that’s what you want, you gotta pay for it,” Mr. Hogan said. “There is no free lunch.”

Mr. Currie told senators that the state’s fiscal picture is indeed bleak in future years.

“We have fiscal problems that are going to require a lot of thought, a lot of teamwork and a lot of difficult decisions,” he said

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