Assembly leaders ready to face off

Taxes, slots remain major points of contention between House, Senate

March 24, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As the General Assembly lurches toward a conclusion on the budget, slots and taxes, a central question defines Annapolis: Which Mike do you like?

In the east corner of the State House sits Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the resilient master of power who appears as influential as at any time during his 17-year tenure.

In the west corner, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the ex-football player and coach, is finishing his first session in charge after assuming control late last year.

For the first time, the two leaders will line up against each other to determine how the state balances its books over the next several years. With budget shortfalls projected to surpass $1 billion again within two years, Busch and Miller must decide whether gambling dollars will be used to fill the gap, and if and when Maryland must increase its sales or income taxes.

Busch's House passed a balanced budget last week that contained more than $200 million in corporate tax increases and a $166 million state property tax increase, but no money from slots.

Miller's Senate approved a slots-at-racetracks bill over the weekend, with plans to lock gambling into its version of the budget through $15 million in application fees from track owners.

Now comes the intriguing part, and the most common snippet of jargon in the State House has become "endgame."

Will Busch's exit strategy to resolve the budget without slots trump Miller's pro-gambling views by a scheduled April 7 adjournment, or will the Senate prevail? And how will Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. factor in?

"If I have [an endgame], I sure as hell don't want to read about it in the paper tomorrow," said Miller. "Then it will be the exact opposite."

Busch was more direct.

"The endgame is, we passed the budget, we're ready to go home," the speaker said. "Let [Miller] sit here until Memorial Day. Annapolis is great in May. He hasn't even balanced a budget. For all the huffing and puffing and posturing, the only one who did the responsible thing is the House."

Evenly matched

In the struggle between two potent adversaries, other State House veterans are reluctant to make bold predictions.

"One is not more formidable than the other," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director.

Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has sat across the desk from both legislators and respects each.

Taylor groomed Busch as his successor, although the transition - which came after last fall's upset election in Allegany County - came quicker than planned.

"If you talk about the athletic world he grew up in and excelled in, he gets a game plan and he has the discipline to stick to it," Taylor said. "That shows through right now."

Miller, however, is "a world-class strategic politician, there's no question about that," Taylor said, noting the Senate president's experience in brinkmanship under deadlines.

Strategies are emerging on how each leader will achieve his objectives.

Having passed slots legislation and linked application fees to its budget-balancing plan, the Senate will try to force the House to accept expanded gambling at the budget negotiating table.

Miller is also warning he is prepared to extend the session beyond its closing day to get a satisfactory budget deal, a threat that resonates with part-time lawmakers who have families and jobs that need attention and vacations scheduled.

There is talk among lawmakers of linking slots with a higher sales or income tax in a package that could erase years of projected deficits and cover Maryland's long-term commitments to public school funding.

In the past week, Miller - who began the session as an opponent of taxes - renewed his call for a higher sales or income levy, although Ehrlich continues to say he would veto such a bill.

"We need cuts, we need slots, and we need revenues," Miller said. "More revenues than were passed in the House [corporate tax] package."

But that rhetoric is transparent to some.

"In the last two weeks of the session, anybody who talks about income taxes, sales taxes or a structural deficit is really talking about slots," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The House formula is to advocate the slots-free budget plan it already passed and delay a gambling decision until next year.

"What is stronger?" asked Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "The Senate president's experience and his command of the Senate, or the universal desire to go home on time with a balanced budget?"

House has `factions'

But the House is less cohesive than its counterpart. Some of Busch's lieutenants, including Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, are actively working for slots.

"The House has more factions and independence than the Senate does," said House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. of Perry Hall. "I think that gives Mike Miller more influence over the situation."

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