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Maryland's budget debate

July 16, 2003

The 2004 session of the Maryland General Assembly is shaping up like the rematch of a heavyweight fight. In one corner is Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who's determined not to break his promise to hold the line on taxes, and in the other lawmakers who say that even legalizing slot machines won't cover all the state's bills.

We welcome the debate Marylanders are about to witness over how much government the state needs - and how much it will cost.

According to the Associated Press, the governor's proposal for slot machines at the state's horse tracks is no sure bet for the 2004 session, despite the state's continuing financial problems. One reason:The FBI is eyeballing a $200,000 donation given to a national political committee overseen by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller by racetrack owner Joseph DeFrancis.

And last week lawmakers learned that another racetrack owner, William Rickman Sr., had held a fund-raiser for Del. William Hurson, D-Montgomery, just weeks after Hurson sent legislative leaders a letter in favor of a slot-legalization plan.

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Neither of these events will incline lawmakers to do track owners any favors, even though without slots, horse racing probably has no long-term future in Maryland.

To get through the current year without the millions he hoped slots would yield, Ehrlich has impounded what amounts to 10 percent of state agencies' budgets, saying he will relinquish some of the cash later if the state's economy improves.

Is that overstepping the considerable authority the law already gives Maryland's governors? Yes, but Ehrlich will be forgiven if he can offer a credible plan to cut state expenses, as he promised to do with the help of former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

The problem is, as noted in The Washington Post by House Speaker Michael Busch, is that Ehrlich made many promises during the campaign, including more money for education, no cuts for the counties and no layoffs. By insisting on total control of the process, as opposed to the 75 percent he had already, the governor may find that he's in line for 100 percent of the credit - or the blame.

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