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Special session could put county's interests at risk

October 09, 2007

On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that a special General Assembly session on Maryland's budget deficit might be imperiled because Gov. Martin O'Malley has yet to corral enough votes to ensure its success.

The session, if it occurs, also includes risks for Washington County, because many things are expected to happen in a very short time. In the rush to get a lot accomplished, this area's interests might get shoved to the side. It's up to local lawmakers and businesspeople to do whatever they can to see that such a thing doesn't happen.

In a way, it would be surprising if O'Malley's budget plan didn't hit a few bumps in the road, because to work it would require lawmakers not only to legalize slots - something that couldn't be accomplished during the previous four years - but also to raise taxes on sales and upper-income residents.

That would be easier if the Republicans weren't loudly opposing the package and if some Democrats weren't having second thoughts about slots and whether such a complicated package should really be passed so quickly, without public hearings and citizens' input.

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Comptroller Peter Franchot is an opponent of slots, while House Speaker Michael Busch has been on-again, off-again about the idea.

We support slots. Marylanders are already flocking to West Virginia and Delaware to play them. And, slots are in essence a voluntary tax. If you don't want to play, no one will force you to do so.

Slots will also stabilize the state's horse-racing industry, which, aside from all the suppliers that benefit from it, preserves thousands of acres of open space.

That brings us to local interests. For example, how would the proposed increase in the state sales tax affect local businesses? Going from 5 percent to 6 percent doesn't seem like a big jump when you're buying a $10 hair dryer, but for companies who purchase thousands of dollars worth of materials, the cost would be substantial.

How would passage of O'Malley's package affect transportation aid to local areas? State money and/or assistance is needed here for a number of projects, many of which were discussed in last week's meeting between Speaker Busch and local businesspeople. If the package doesn't pass, will everyone have to make do with less?

And then there is school construction money, which Washington County needs plenty of.

The businesspeople who met with Busch brought up an interesting possibility - adaptive re-use of existing buildings as schools.

As noted by Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, when the price of a new high school is topping $50 million, it makes sense to look at the re-use of buildings that are empty, but structurally sound.

Those who fear what might happen during a special session are not alarmists. With a limited time to act, there will be a temptation for some lawmakers to slip some special favors for favored constituents into the package.

What concerns us is that less-populated, rural areas might end up paying for such favors. We urge the delegation to be vigilant and for the business community to continue the personal lobbying efforts they began here last week.

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