- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to increase the cigarette tax by $1 to expand the state’s health care services should help him win over key lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch, in his plan to legalize slot machines in Maryland.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, announced plans yesterday to increase the cigarette tax and tie it to a health care expansion.

That should buy him points with the state’s most powerful slots opponent Mr. Busch though he will face more hurdles from Republicans and traditional slots foes in his drive to legalize at least 9,500 slot machines in Maryland.

Mr. O’Malley hopes to raise $170 million through the cigarette-tax increase and use half of that total to expand health care and the other half to help close the state’s $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

The tax increase and health care expansion are the latest announcements in Mr. O’Malley’s tax tour across the state.

“We have been taking the time every day to talk piece by piece about the comprehensive [budget] plan,” Mr. O’Malley told seniors at the Victory House in Landover.

Mr. O’Malley also has proposed increased taxes on personal and corporate income, gasoline and general sales, along with legalized slot machines and new fees for car titles.

His budget plan also includes some cuts to offset the $2 billion in new taxes, including reductions in property and personal-income taxes for lower wage earners, as well as a $50 sales-tax rebate and increased tax exemptions for senior citizens.

“I think what we have put forward is a framework that allows us to find consensus,” Mr. O’Malley said.

The health care expansion and cigarette tax appear to be an explicit attempt at compromise between Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, who championed a cigarette tax increase solely for health care expansion, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, who said the tax should be used to close the budget shortfall exclusively.

Mr. O’Malley’s step toward Mr. Busch on the issue could help him win favor from the House leader on the state’s most contentious issue: legalized slots gambling.

Mr. Busch continued his criticism of slots this week, even though Mr. O’Malley based his plan on a proposal that passed the House in 2005.

Mr. O’Malley also faces new obstacles from Republicans a key voting bloc on the issue and black lawmakers, many of whom oppose slots legalization.

Republicans were largely split on the issue before Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office in 2003. They rallied behind the Republican governor for four years, ungrudgingly supporting his slots proposals.

With Mr. Ehrlich’s departure from the second floor of the State House, gone too is the impetus for Republican support of a Democratic slots plan.

Mr. O’Malley said this week he is banking on support from the state’s Republicans, but Republican leaders said Mr. O’Malley’s expectations are mistaken.

“I don’t think anyone should assume broad support from the Republicans,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell, Southern Maryland Republican.

Many members of the Legislative Black Caucus have opposed legalized slot machines, even the House plan that would have kept slots out of jurisdictions dominated by black lawmakers, including Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

“I think too many people are reading too much into the 2005 bill,” said Delegate Michael L. Vaughn, Prince George’s Democrat and a member of the Black Caucus.

Even former members of the House, without a vote in the matter, have continued to lobby against legalized slots in Maryland.

“I am especially disappointed because the governor himself has made it clear over the past week that we don’t need slots to solve the structural deficit,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot, a former Democratic delegate from Montgomery County. “If we can cut taxes, expand services and bring our fiscal house in order, then surely we can do without slots.”

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