An overriding concern

April 07, 2003|By SUN STAFF

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. should accept the modest tax increases needed to balance the state's $22.4 billion budget.

But if he chooses to veto them, legislators must vote to override.

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn at midnight tonight after it copes with the usual flurry of last-minute business, including a capital construction budget.

But it may be adjourning with considerable uncertainty.

The governor might not veto the tax bill until the Assembly has gone home. In that event, a special legislative session would be needed: A veto would remove $135 million in revenue, throwing the budget out of balance. It's unnecessary and counterproductive.

With enormous deficits running three or four years into the future, the Assembly and the governor need to find ways to cooperate as they address the unfinished business of this year's session: finding ways to bring spending into line with available resources.

Clearly, the current impasse is political.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly thwarted Mr. Ehrlich by killing his slot machine gambling bill. He appears eager to retaliate by vetoing minor tax increases he appeared to bless earlier in the legislative session.

And he would be creating this difficulty even as anti-slots leaders in the Assembly seemed - curiously - to soften their opposition just as they were winning. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who led the successful opposition, made clear he was not unalterably opposed to slots. At least one legislative group will study the issue this summer with an eye toward re-introducing it next year. Mr. Busch has said he would accept a referendum on the issue.

Slots are a bad idea for Maryland. They ought to be rejected finally and totally. But for those who see them as the answer, an orderly study - leading perhaps to a referendum - seems a deal worth taking.

The cost in new taxes is not high.

At least two of the proposed levies now before the governor may be characterized as tax fairness measures: a 2 percent tax on health maintenance organization policies puts HMOs on a par with other insurers whose policies are taxed, and $35 million would come from the closing of loopholes in which corporations escape Maryland taxes on their profits.

By contrast to these stopgap increases, virtually no attention was given this year to increasing the sales or income taxes.

The cost is about to become apparent.

Late last week, more than $30 million was restored to the higher-education budget - at the expense of a program designed to increase public school teacher salaries. Local governments, already hit hard, were left to make up the difference.

The governor responds now to his own failed slots initiative by threatening vetoes and more cuts.

His determination to honor a campaign promise - no new taxes - may be admirable, but what of his other campaign promises: Uninterrupted aid to the counties? Full funding of the Thornton Commission education aid package? Those were also among Mr. Ehrlich's promises.

The governor is understandably disappointed by the failure of his slot machine bill. And his determination to find efficiencies in government is widely applauded. But vetoes now seem like a power play for Mr. Ehrlich, not for the state of Maryland.

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