Avoiding more pain

April 03, 2003|By SUN STAFF

THOUGH MANEUVERING may continue over the next few days, let's hope Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will not force more budget cuts after the apparent defeat yesterday of his slot machine legislation.

Further reductions are unnecessary this year - unless Mr. Ehrlich won't accept a handful of relatively minor budget-balancing tax increases proposed by the House of Delegates and the Senate.

If he rejects these measures, he would blow a hole in the budget lawmakers are completing now. Another $225 million - more or less - would have to be removed from higher education, aid to the counties, a new juvenile services initiative and various other programs.

Clearly the prospect of further cuts are what Mr. Ehrlich's budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., meant when he predicted "dire" consequences if slots failed. Even deeper cuts would be needed next year, Mr. DiPaula says.

But further damage to government programs now will be seen as mean-spirited revenge-seeking. If Mr. Ehrlich still feels slots are the only answer to the state's financial problem, he could come back next year with a bill legislators aren't embarrassed to vote for. Right now, the Assembly has no way of knowing if Mr. Ehrlich's proposal represents the best deal for the state - and that's just one of many questions that need better answers.

Three months ago, during his State of the State address, the governor introduced the Assembly and Marylanders at large to a half-dozen citizens who have benefited from governmental programs. The unstated message: Pass slots or good people will suffer.

A clear message, but a wrong-headed one. The welfare of the disabled or the drug-dependent or the poorly educated ought not to depend on the passage of a gambling bill. Mr. Ehrlich first assured concerned legislators that he was not pushing a "slots for tots" approach to gambling, but that assurance has faded as the Assembly has seemed unwilling to launch Maryland into a culture dominated by gambling.

The Ehrlich administration proposal barely escaped the Senate. House Speaker Michael E. Busch resolutely opposes slots in general and the Ehrlich approach to them in particular.

This understandably difficult moment for Mr. Ehrlich nonetheless offers him an opportunity to show the leadership for which he was elected - by sticking to his apparent acceptance of minimal tax increases. Certainly, his concerns about the fiscal future of the state are well-founded, and surely he will not want to hurt Marylanders - including those to whom he pointed with pride and concern in January.

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