Voters predict tax increase to balance budget

Opinions: Respondents to a survey for The Sun also say they want a referendum on the slots issue.

The Maryland Poll

January 08, 2003|By David Nitkin and Tim Craig | David Nitkin and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Maryland's budget woes have grown so pervasive that an overwhelming majority of voters believe that Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won't be able to balance the state's books without raising taxes, a new poll for The Sun released today shows.

Nearly six in 10 registered voters say Ehrlich will be forced to violate his campaign pledge during his four-year term. And before granting him another signature election-year initiative - installing slot machines at state racetracks - they say they want to decide the issue for themselves at the ballot box.

Marylanders aren't wholly opposed to paying more out of their pockets to solve the budget crunch. More than two-thirds of poll respondents say state residents who earn more than $100,000 yearly should temporarily contribute higher income taxes to ease the crisis and fund services provided by the state.

The Maryland Poll, conducted for the newspaper by Potomac Survey Research, illustrates the vexing choices faced by a new General Assembly that convenes today for its annual legislative session.

Budget issues have become the second-leading concern of state residents, behind the quality of public schools. Lawmakers will spend the next 90 days wrangling over how to fill a projected $1.2 billion gap in a $22 billion state budget.

A year ago, the shortfall barely intruded on the consciousness of state residents: Three percent of voters said it was the most pressing issue in the state.

Today, however, more than one in six voters say it's the top concern that political leaders should address during the next three months.

The telephone survey of 1,200 randomly selected likely voters was conducted Dec. 30 through Saturday, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, ruled out tax increases again yesterday, trying to assuage skeptics.

But the governor-elect's promises - which include leaving aid to counties untouched and avoiding employee layoffs - could soon change, predicted Del. Howard P. Rawlings of Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I think reality will hit him and he will make certain adjustments," Rawlings said. "I don't see how he is going to address some of these fiscal problems without additional adjustments to our tax structure."

The General Assembly's budget debate is expected to center on slot machines, with Ehrlich asserting that 10,000 terminals at four racetracks could generate $800 million yearly for the state.

The governor-elect says his election victory over Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend showed that residents want slots, but poll results indicate anything but unanimity, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac.

`Not a strong mandate'

Forty-eight percent of residents say they favor slots at tracks, with 39 percent in opposition. But two of three Marylanders say voters should decide through a referendum whether to expand gambling - a position at odds with the governor-elect and legislative leaders.

"There is not a strong mandate for slots, nor is it being viewed as a panacea for all the state's ills," Haller said. "Public support is there, but it's not strong and it's not locked down.

"Most people see it as a big issue and would prefer to have it addressed in an election context where they would have a final say. ... "

Ehrlich and top legislative leaders say that slots can't be delayed until a 2004 referendum. The money is needed, they say, sooner than that.

"This is a no-brainer," said Ehrlich in an interview yesterday. "There's a lot of dollars here. Our plan is to fund Thornton [mandated education increases] completely. We think it can be done, given the stakes."

Last year, legislators adopted the recommendations of a school funding task force known as the Thornton Commission, and plan to spend $147 million more on education this year.

Voters are split on whether the state can afford the commitment. More than half say the plan should be implemented at all costs - either through spending cuts or tax increases - yet 34 percent believe that it should be delayed until fiscal conditions improve.

While tying slots to education has much support, ambivalence about gambling is widespread. Joy Stow, a Severna Park homemaker, is among the 66 percent of voters who say that if slots are approved, gambling will spread beyond tracks. Stow fears for the future of Baltimore's family-oriented Inner Harbor. "I can see it being like New Orleans, where they have a casino in the French Quarter," she said. "I could see something like that going up, and I just don't think it is wise."

Needed diversion

But James Depfer, 60, of Severn said horse tracks need the boost that an added diversion would deliver.

"I go to the racetracks twice a year, and you can see they have gone downhill without slots," Depfer said. "There used to be a lot of people there, but now you go during the week and there is hardly any people. ... "

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