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Session reviewed

April 30, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

HALFWAY - Anxiety about the state's unsolved budget problems overshadowed an otherwise positive legislative session for Washington County lawmakers, state and local business leaders said Thursday.

Because of partisan gridlock between Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the Democrat-controlled legislature, the state is facing a $1 billion deficit in the 2006 budget year, said Ron Wineholt, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Left unchecked, that will grow to $2 billion by 2008, Wineholt told members of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning.

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"If we don't want to cut services, we have to raise some revenues," said Pam Christoffel, who chairs the chamber's government affairs committee. "We have tough choices ahead."

About 70 chamber members attended the annual post-legislative forum at the Plaza Hotel in Halfway.

Because Ehrlich is bound by state law to funnel more money into public education, money for health care and local governments could be on the chopping block.

One idea being considered is eliminating the state's contribution toward teacher retirement, which would cost Washington County $9.1 million a year, said Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington.

"This is a real possibility by the fact that the governor did not get a slots package," he said. "I won't support it."

Most local lawmakers saw Ehrlich's slots proposal as the best solution to the state's budget problems.

One exception was Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington.

As a small business owner who "likes to get the job done," Myers said he was frustrated by the lack of action in Annapolis during the three-month session that ended earlier this month.

Myers said there was still more government waste to cut. He cited the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program, which costs the state $5-per-vehicle more than the state collects in inspection fees.

"If we could clean up that type of waste, it's amazing what we could save," he said.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he would be willing to support a temporary income tax surcharge on those who make more than $150,000 a year.

That would affect only about 3 percent of the state's residents, he said, and was used in the early 1990s to get the state through some rough fiscal years.

But Ehrlich has ruled out any sales or income taxes, a stance supported by the chamber.

Although the idea of slots is bound to return next year, the money it would bring in would not arrive in time to fill the 2005 budget hole, Wineholt said.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, was asked how state leaders are going to forge common ground.

His answer: "There is none."

When it came to local issues last session, Washington County did well, Christoffel said.

Lawmakers secured $1 million in start-up money for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center, a $400,000 grant to open a school for the arts downtown, and state aid for improvements to Dual Highway, she said.

Lawmakers left Annapolis in mid-April with a balanced budget for 2005, but Wineholt called it "a matter of sticky fingers in the dike trying to find a way to hold it all together."

"Once again it was a matter of deferring to next year the big problems. It's a very bad situation that's going to imperil state services and possibly the state's Triple A bond rating," Wineholt said.

Only half of the eight-member Washington County Delegation attended Thursday's forum. Four had other personal or state government commitments.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, was occupied with the birth Wednesday of his second child, a boy.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, was in Macedonia observing the presidential election.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, had meetings in Annapolis.

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