Showdown 2003

January 05, 2003

AND NOW IT begins - a potentially grinding confrontation between elected officials and a budget deficit of $1.2 billion.

Maryland's new leader, Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., takes ownership of a problem he did not create but must quickly solve.

It's not his task alone. The General Assembly - still dominated by Democrats - bears considerable responsibility for the predicament. A struggling economy alone did not put this state so deeply in the red. Both legislature and executive will be required to act responsibly and prudently - equitably apportioning pain.

The foremost issue will be the budget and its shadow issue, slot machines at race tracks. Mr. Ehrlich and some segment of the Assembly see slots as the answer. Others oppose that approach, and they ought to push hard for alternatives, including appropriate tax increases.

Slots won't forestall the need for more revenue. The most optimistic forecasts of slots revenue fall short of the needs. Moreover, they are the wrong answer. Government should not be in the business of pushing a form of gambling that can impoverish families. To slough responsibility for government services onto a few of us undermines the idea that we must pay for what we want.

Of course the Ehrlich administration's new eyes on old state agencies are welcome. A thorough review will be a tonic in parts of government where, it is widely believed, workers have no expectation that their work product will be examined.

But economies alone will not suffice. Maryland has been through two or three years of borrowing from various important programs.

The cost of bailing us out can be equitably shared. It's part of the responsibility we all share for the predicament we're in.

None of the tax alternatives recently recommended by a special commission should be off the table. Maryland is a wealthy state where, surveys show, the cost of government ranks in the middle of the 50 states.

With a new administration in town, a period of adjustment might be anticipated - particularly when the new leaders are Republicans, out of the governor's mansion for the better part of a half-century. Mr. Ehrlich and his team are busily handing out the spoils of victory - jobs and positions on boards and commissions that have been the exclusive preserve of Democrats. Friction would not be surprising.

How much will the partisan feelings color the 90-day legislative session beginning on Wednesday? Minimally, we hope.

Let's hope the 2003 Assembly can adjourn after a session in which the state's financial house is restored to good standing while preserving services we all want and need.

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