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Threat to keep tax cash one disgraceful proposal

March 19, 2003

It may be spring training season for Major League Baseball, but the kind of hardball being played by the Maryland General Assembly isn't nearly as likely to bring cheers from the state's citizens. The threat to withhold income-revenues due to the cities and counties ought to be rejected for the low tactic that it is.

On Saturday, after the House Appropriations Committee completed work on a budget proposal, it was still $175 million short of the revenues needed to put it in balance. Unless something else happens, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the committee chair, predicted a series of what he called "doomsday" cuts.

At the head of the list was a proposal to withhold $92 million in income taxes the state collects on behalf of the counties and municipalities. We agree with David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, who said such an act would be "stealing."

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This proposal is doubly offensive because by and large local governments work hard to keep their budgets in balance and their expenses down. They do not usually propose large initiatives like the Thornton Commission education aid package without knowing where they will get the cash to fund them.

That's not to say that we oppose Thornton. We do not; the state should provide a larger share of education expenses, as it once did. But committing to Thornton, knowing full well that tobacco tax revenues would only cover its cost for the first two years - and hoping that something would turn up after that - was not the most responsible course of action.

Now something has turned up, or in the case of the economy, turned down. The lack of a contingency plan has forced the legislature to take drastic measures, but making local governments pay for the General Assembly's lack of planning shouldn't be one of them.

We continue to believe that the state's horse tracks should pay what was originally proposed for the right to run slot machines, about $230 million more than is now being asked. If track owners don't believe that amount is fair, then lawmakers should seek proposals for other sites.

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