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Maryland's lawmakers are in for a fight during '03 session

January 06, 2003

The Maryland General Assembly begins its 2003 session on Wednesday, with revenue the top item on everyone's agenda. Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich is counting on slot machines at the state's horse tracks to help close a shortfall now estimated at $1.3 billion, but harsher measures are likely to be necessary.

Why? Because the most optimistic estimates say that slots would produce just $400 million a year. If those who fear slots are the first step toward full-blown casino gambling challenge the measure in court, it may take the whole session to pass the bill.

Then lawmakers will have to decide who'll have oversight and seek bids on machines and operation and maintenance services. That will take time, which means that unless the economy perks up more quickly than the experts expect, something else will have to be done.

Don't count on the new governor to raise taxes. The last thing he wants to do is encourage the view that all politicians are alike, no matter what their party. Other options will be considered first.

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Ehrlich has already said he wants to combine some state agencies to save money. And programs like the HotSpots anti-crime initiative may be at risk as well. Bond bills, which fund local projects like new facilities for non-profit organizations, will probably not pass this session either.

The last time this state was in such financial straits, state aid to local governments suffered, with the state forcing local governments to share its pain. Something like that will probably happen again.

But there's only so much that can be cut and the state needs additional money to fund increases for its regional trauma centers. Look for surcharges on insurance policies or an increase in charges assessed when traffic violators go to court.

In short, the task for local lawmakers this year won't be bringing home the bacon, but trying to make sure no one takes away the pork they've already got.

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