Slots, budget unresolved by state Assembly

In final week, legislature hopes to meet deadline

March 31, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

If state lawmakers have energy left after 83 days of voting, dining and socializing, they'll need it for what all hope will be a final, if frenzied, week in Annapolis.

A select group of senators and delegates made little progress last night on a budget compromise for the fiscal year that begins July 1, demonstrating that the most contentious issues - slots and a spending plan - might not be resolved until the closing hours of the General Assembly session.

On paper, lawmakers appear tantalizingly close to an exit. Competing House and Senate budgets share many similarities, and differences could be resolved rapidly to get the state through another year.

But a broader debate on whether slots should be approved and whether some taxes should be raised immediately to avoid deficits projected for future years threatens to send lawmakers into overtime.

The session is scheduled to end a week from today, so Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will have to move quickly to rescue the sputtering agenda with which he entered the year.

Ehrlich's push for slots at three Maryland racetracks, as well as for a gun-crime program modeled after Virginia's Project Exile and a measure to make it easier for charter schools to open, are languishing in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

The governor and his aides say they remain confident that Ehrlich can achieve his goals.

"Most of the business being done this session is going on behind closed doors," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "Those meetings will intensify this week. Everyone in Annapolis will be burning the midnight oil. By no means have the negotiations ended. If anything, they are just beginning."

Yesterday's talks involved key members of the House and Senate budget writing committees, who gathered informally to discuss differences in each chamber's spending plans.

Lawmakers conceded they are working only on a stop-gap fix to the state's financial problems through cuts, transfers, some business taxes and fees and other one-time maneuvers.

Even if slot machines are legalized, they said, the state faces huge budget deficits into the future without a sales or income tax increase or extensive spending cuts.

"I think we ought to have a universal agreement that we do have a big problem," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Yesterday, negotiators danced around the slots issue. The Senate has approved a slots bill, and included $15 million in one-time application fees from racetracks in its budget plan. But the House has not voted on a slots bill, and it balanced its budget proposal without gambling money.

One senator complained that House leaders haven't offered any measures to deal with the long-term budget problem.

"We gave you video lottery [slot machines]," Sen. Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, told House negotiators. "You all are talking, but you haven't given us anything."

When Rawlings responded that he and other House leaders backed an increase in the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, especially if packaged with slots, Currie said: "Send it over to us. We'll support it."

Ehrlich, however, continues to promise a veto of a sales or income tax increase, making yesterday's casual deal-making an empty exercise. In remarks last week, Ehrlich said voters did not elect him to raise taxes.

"I believe that Nov. 5 sent a signal," the governor said. "We believe that the old status quo - tax and spend - was defeated this time."

It could be days before negotiators take up the slots issue in earnest, several said.

With House Speaker Michael E. Busch refusing to budge on slots - he has not allowed a committee hearing on the Senate gambling bill - Senate action is stalled on scores of House bills.

"I've heard from several people that House bills are being voted on in Senate committees but not reported to the Senate floor," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, in an e-mail letter to his supporters. "The House may be forced to return the favor. That will remain the case, presumably, until the House passes the slots bill or a grand compromise is reached."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller denied that he put the brakes on House legislation because of slots. "They're not moving at this point in time because we're concentrating on the budget," Miller said in an interview last week.

Lawmakers will try to resolve several significant issues, including the best mechanism for disciplining doctors.

A bill that would keep the Board of Physician Quality Assurance in business is being negotiated in the Senate, where Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County is bucking physicians by demanding a change in standards that could result in more negligent doctors being punished.

Other bills would recast the board of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and refocus the mission of the not-for-profit health insurance giant on serving the state's neediest residents.

Looming over all discussions is the threat that the legislature will not finish on time. Ehrlich, Miller and Busch all say they are willing to work past next week's deadline to prevail on slots.

"The possibility for an extended session remains," Ehrlich said, adding that he would not be put out by the development. The governor's mansion, he noted, is right across the street from the State House.

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