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Slot bill dead

deep cuts ahead

April 04, 2003

Acting under the direction of Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, the House Ways and Means Committee has killed a bill that would have legalized slot machines at four horse tracks. Now lawmakers will have to decide what to cut to balance the state's budget.

The slots proposal surfaced in early January when Gov. Robert Ehrlich submitted a $22.9 billion budget that covered a $1.3 billion shortfall by adding projected revenues from more than 10,000 slot machines that would have been placed at three existing tracks and at a fourth to be built in Allegany County.

Though the governor campaigned on a platform that favored using slot revenues to balance the budget, the proposal was ill-thought-out, and the strategy used to advance it was amateurish.

Instead of borrowing what had worked well elsewhere, the Ehrlich team tried to craft a proposal from scratch. And the governor himself alienated Speaker Busch early on by suggesting he was playing "the race card" on the issue.

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Now the slots proposal will apparently be studied over the summer. To balance the budget, the House will attempt to force through tax increases that Ehrlich has vowed to veto.

What will the final budget package look like? We predict that there will be an extended hiring freeze and that the so-called "bond bill" grants that help with nonprofit organizations' capital construction projects will be put on hold until the economy improves.

In tough times, it's a Maryland tradition to raid dedicated funds like the one set up to fund transportation improvements, so look for delays in road-improvement projects and mass-transit upgrades.

Finally, there's the education funding improvements recommended by the Thornton Commission. The last tobacco-tax increase is covering the first two years, which gives the state some breathing room, but not much, given the unfunded mandates in the federal "No Child Left Behind" law.

In approving Thornton, the Maryland legislature promised a great deal. Now it must find a way to deliver.

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