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Democrats should giveground in slots debate

June 25, 2004

Faced with an opponent who won't approve a bill to legalize slot machines and a determination to keep his promise not to raise taxes, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich is opting for the ax instead, asking all departments to cut next year's budgets by up to 12 percent.

If the governor is talking about improving the efficiency of government and weeding out programs that don't work, we're for that.

If, however, he is talking about shifting a major share of the state's costs back to local government, we're most definitely opposed.

To give the governor his due, though, House speaker Michael Busch hasn't given him much room to maneuver. Busch won't let a slots bill pass unless it's coupled with new taxes, which Ehrlich opposes.

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The governor got last year's budget passed with a series of fee increases and one-time borrowings that won't be available for 2005. Now it's either find some new revenue or cut programs.

To do that, department heads have been given "strategic budgeting guides" to determine which programs can go and which should stay.

Department heads have three options: Ask for funding at last year's level, ask for less or eliminate the program completely.

Democrats say that this will lead to a continuous round of special pleading by those affected by the various programs facing the chopping block.

That wouldn't be so bad because those pleading would either make the case for their programs, or not.

What we fear is that state department heads, knowing that in the real world, costs are increasing, will fight for some programs that are worthless only to preserve the funds that go with them. That would put off the day when programs that really need to go are eliminated.

We suggest that the Democrats forestall this by agreeing to pass slots without a tax increase. If slots don't yield the funds needed to run state government and provide the services citizens want, there will be time enough later to pass tax increases.

But to get from here - the current stalemate - to a compromise of sorts, one side has to yield. Ehrlich was elected to statewide office on a program to legalize slots and hold down taxes. In recognition of that, the Democrats should yield.




Five years and no solution to building-code dilemma



Concerned about the safety of homeowners and the fire and rescue personnel who respond to house fires, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a new building code.

That was in 1999. The State Department of Labor and Industry then took five years to work out the details, delivering what was supposed to be a solid product that was due to go into effect July 1.

But after all that, lawmakers pressured by citizens who do their own work have amended the code in a way that will exempt many home repairs from permits or inspections.

Because the bill has passed the House by a vote of 192-4 and is expected to win passage in the Senate next week, it wouldn't do much good for us to argue against the measure. That ship has already sailed.

Instead, we suggest homeowners consider the remarks of Rep. Robert E. Belfanti Jr., D-Northumberland.

Belfanti, who favors loosening up the code for the benefit of home handymen, said that if the code took effect as written, citizens would ignore it.

Then, he said, when it came time to sell the house, the bank wouldn't loan money on it because it didn't meet code.

Would eliminating the code's requirement that homeowners get permits for the work they do and have it inspected change the bank's standard for what it will lend money on?

We doubt it. Banks are in business to make money and one way they do that is by protecting their investments in things such as mortgages. Homeowners who elected to go permit-free may find themselves unable to get something like a home equity loan later.

However, most citizens aren't going to put on a new roof or install new plumbing in their homes. But all taxpayers should be concerned by the fact that even though the Department of Labor and Industry tinkered around with the code for five years, it apparently didn't seek enough public input to anticipate this issue, or to craft a compromise.

There's no excuse for that. This wasn't a panel of citizen volunteers putting this thing together, but state employees paid by the taxpayers. At the very least, they should be made to explain just what happened here.

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