Assembly approves a budget, 'flush tax'

April 13, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

Annapolis - In a bustling last day Monday, the Maryland General Assembly finalized the state budget and a new $30-a-year sewage fee along with several bills requested by the Washington County Delegation.

More than half of the Washington County Delegation's legislative initiatives were left hanging until the last day of the 90-day session.

The local bills that passed Monday will:

  • Repeal an arcane oath of office that applies to sheriff's deputies.

  • Allow the county to have two deputy state's attorneys instead of one.

  • Block those who have outstanding fines from getting liquor licenses.

  • Require owners or supervisors at county liquor stores to attend an alcohol awareness program.

  • Clarify that the Washington County Commissioners have the power to collect fees under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

A number of statewide initiatives received final approval Monday, the most talked-about of which was a plan to raise about $76 million a year for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.


The House of Delegates gave final approval Monday to Ehrlich's plan to charge public sewer customers $30 a year beginning Jan 1, 2005.

Ehrlich said he'll sign the bill even though he objects to the legislature's idea to charge households with septic systems the same fee beginning Oct. 1, 2005.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, had supported the legislation earlier this session but changed their minds because of opposition to charging septic system owners.

"I just found it too much to swallow," Shank said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, and Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, voted against the proposal for a second time.

Also coming down to the last day was the state's $23.6 billion budget for 2005.

Negotiators had ironed out differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget on Saturday and brought it back for final approval Monday.

Even though he voted to approve the spending plan, Sen. Alex X. Mooney said he thought the budget could have been trimmed of fat.

A state children's health insurance program, which is now covering families who make three times above the poverty level, could have been reduced, said Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington.

Also, an expensive all-day kindergarten mandate for public schools could have been made optional to save money, he said.

While the budget is balanced for fiscal year 2005, lawmakers acknowledged that it leaves an $800 million hole for fiscal 2006.

"Our bag of one-time measures is nearly empty. The Band-Aids are gone," said Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's.

Ehrlich had proposed slot machines to raise revenue and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, had proposed a $670 million tax package of sales and income taxes.

There was no compromise and the House Ways and Means Committee officially put the issue to rest Monday by unanimously killing a slots proposal that had passed the Senate earlier this session.

McKee, who serves on the committee, said the bill did not treat the horse racing industry fairly.

McKee was one of two committee members who voted in favor of Ehrlich's original slots proposal. He said he did so out of a need to raise money for the state.

McKee said the slots issue isn't going away and is likely to resurface when Ehrlich is forced to make deep budget cuts.

"I think when those cuts start to take place you may see a cry from the public, 'let's put the politics aside and go for slots,'" McKee said.

Busch, who Republicans have called an obstructionist on the slots issue, said he is willing to entertain a special session to work on slots.

But Ehrlich said he wasn't optimistic that a compromise could be reached because Busch has tied the issue to tax increases.

If there is a special session, it likely will be to resolve the issue of skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates, Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich's proposal to curb the rates failed and he predicted the issue will rear its head this summer when Medical Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland revises its rates. Last year, the rates went up 28 percent.

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