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Before rejecting slots plan,let's look at the legislation

February 03, 2003

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich's prescription for fixing what ails the state's budget is to enact a slot-machine bill quickly, then spend the next year looking for ways to streamline government. There's plenty of sentiment for waiting a year on slots, but no answer yet on how much pain not getting that gambling revenue will cause.

The word on Ehrlich's slots-now, reorganization-later strategy came from House Minority Leader Alfred Redmer, who said passing the slots bill in 2003 would give the "Ehrlich team" time to study state government and see what changes might be made.

Without some sort of revenue infusion soon, however, the pain is likely to be great. The state's revenue shortfall is projected at $1.2 billion, a year after the General Assembly voted to endorse the Thornton Commission's recommendations to greatly increase education spending.

The first two years of that will be funded through a tobacco tax increase. But after that the legislature must come up with additional cash. Deciding not to fund that initiative is not an option, due to the extra funding that will be needed to implement that state's portion of the "No Child Left Behind" law.

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So what might get cut if slots are delayed? Ehrlich's people are being vague about that now. Paul Schurick, the governor's communications director, said only that those hurt will be "the most vulnerable people in the state," including schoolchildren and drug addicts.

House Speaker Michael Busch, who favors a one-year moratorium on slots, said Maryland citizens wouldn't accept such threats. He added that those in Annapolis weren't elected "to avoid honest debate." But Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller said he wants to see a bill he concludes something can't be worked out.

Ehrlich has shown a willingness modify his proposal in reaction to criticism. The number of slots proposed has been trimmed, the state's share will be earmarked for education and the concerns of Baltimore City and minority businesspeople have also been addressed.

And so while we respect Busch, who played a key role in ending the local trauma center crisis, we agree with Miller. Let's see the bill and a list of cuts that will be made if it isn't passed. Then lawmakers can decide whether slots are worth voting for.

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