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Lawmakers lament gridlock in 2004, but see more in '05

May 05, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

For four fellows who'd just brought home some substantial state grants for local nonprofits and educational institutions, the Washington County delegation members who came to last Thursday's post-session breakfast were mighty glum.

Del. LeRoy Myers said the contentious session, which featured an ongoing tug-of-war between Gov. Robert Erhlich and House Speaker Michael Busch, reminded him of some tough times he'd had as a building contractor.

"I think I'm a better businessperson now because of the hard times," he said.

But the tough times may get tougher, state lawmakers warned, because Ehrlich is determined to keep a pledge not to raise sales or income taxes, while Busch is just as resolved to raise taxes as a condition of legalizing slot machines.

And one potential tool in the governor's satchel is a threat to cut local aid, including the state's contribution to teacher retirement. That alone could cost Washington County $9 million a year, delegates said.

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On the other hand, said Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/ Washington, Speaker Busch "is definitely smarter than everybody gave him credit for."

Pressed to allow a vote on slots, Busch did so, Weldon said, but only after approving a bill that would place slots in all the subdistricts where people would likely oppose them.

While acknowledging that gambling is a "cheap and sleazy way to balance the budget," Weldon said he would have voted for it anyway.

Why? Because, Weldon said, Marylanders are "voting with their feet" and going to Delaware and West Virginia to gamble.

Weldon predicted that the gridlock would continue in 2005, with the governor holding fast on taxes and balancing the budget with "substantial cuts" in state services.

Del. Myers said that one possible way to obtain a little breathing room, financially speaking, would be to revisit the funding recommendations of the Thornton Commission, perhaps spreading out the phase-in of new dollars.

I could happen, he said, but because pro-Thornton members are a majority, it won't.

Cutting waste is another possibility, Myers said, noting that he proposed exempting all new cars from Maryland's emissions test since they rarely fail.

Exempting them would save $5 for each car tested, Myers said, because fees drivers pay don't cover what the state gives a contractor to do the testing.

State Sen. John Hafer, R-Allegany/Washington, said there seems no way to reach common ground between Ehrlich and Busch. He lamented the fact that in the slots debate, little thought has been given to those who raise horses and how that provides open space and jobs for many.

Given the governor's adamant opposition to new taxes, the boldest idea of the day came from Del. Robert McKee, R-Washington, who proposed a temporary income-tax surcharge of Marylanders making more than $150,000 a year.

It would only affect 3 percent of the state's taxpayers and was used previously in the early 1990s to get the state through some tough financial times, McKee said.

This one is unlikely to fly, but give McKee credit for having the guts to even talk about it.

Del. Myers said that if the economy picks up, the state could weather the budgetary storm.

"For every 1 percent the state economy ticks up, we bring in $100 million in new revenue," he said.

That would be nice, but is it likely? Probably not. And without someone to broker a deal between Ehrlich and Busch, get ready for a series of cuts to popular state programs, like the Department of Natural Resources' decision to cut the number of fish they give to nonprofits for local "fishing rodeos."

That may have been in the works long before the session ended, but it's likely we'll be seeing more of the same before it's over.

State parks could close on Saturdays, the Department of Motor Vehicles might reduce personnel and lengthen lines, and scholarship money for needy students might be cut.

All would produce howls of protest, to which the governor - who has near-unlimited power over the state's budget - will say:

"Tell your buddies in the legislature to enact slots and we'll have the money to do what you want."

It won't be pretty, but judging from what I heard last week, few will bet that it won't happen.

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