Assembly session leaves uncertain legacy

Slots failure, fee increases are short-term effects

long-term impact unclear

April 09, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Cathy Shea's business will continue to boom. She has the Maryland General Assembly to thank for that.

Shea runs Golden Ring Travel, a Baltimore County agency that charters buses to the casinos in New Jersey's Atlantic City, to the slot machines at Delaware's Dover Downs and West Virginia's Charles Town. Every day she fills dozens of seats to gambling destinations an easy drive away.

When the Assembly failed to pass Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to bring slot machines to Maryland, Shea sighed in relief. Her business is mostly gambling excursions, and if the legislation had been approved, people would have fewer reasons to go elsewhere.

"For us," she said, "it's a good thing."

At the stroke of midnight Monday, the Maryland General Assembly closed the book on its annual 90-day legislative session, during which hundreds of new laws were passed and hundreds more defeated.

Members considered bills about crosswalks and ground rent and towing companies and deer hunting and, of course, the cash-strapped budget. But yesterday, voters were left wondering how much that was done in the halls of the State House will affect their daily lives.

"Some legislation you don't feel the actual tangible impact for four or five years down the road," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.

The effect of other legislation is more immediate.

Homeowners will soon see the state portion of their property taxes go up (on a $150,000 house, state taxes will likely rise from $126 a year to $231). Car registrations will cost more -- $5 will be added to the $76 charged every two years, with the money going to Maryland's trauma centers.

For Montgomery County, an additional registration surcharge -- $27 a year -- was added to pay for local transportation projects, though Ehrlich aides said he would likely veto it.

A variety of fees will increase as lawmakers looked for creative ways to pay for needed programs -- a fee on phone bills will increase to pay for a system to enable 911 operators to find the location of wireless callers. After a midyear tuition increase at the University of Maryland, tuition is poised to rise again for next school year because of budget cuts.

Despite the small revenue-raisers, the legislature didn't find a way to address the long-term budgetary needs of the state. So far, 1,700 state jobs have been lost -- but this time, they were vacancies and no personal pain was felt. Those issues will fall to next year's session.

Sometimes it's what didn't happen that makes a difference.

While no short-term transportation projects will be affected, Montgomery County Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. wonders what will happen down the road, because $300 million is to be diverted from the state's transportation trust fund to pay for this year's budget needs.

"In two or three years, there might be a number of projects we simply don't have the funds for, or in the Baltimore area people will have to pay higher fares on MTA," he said. "Some of the things that happened will take a long time to play out."

Marylanders may feel the effects of this session as they drive. Cameras to catch drivers who speed through residential neighborhoods and school zones, similar to red-light cameras, were approved by lawmakers, though Ehrlich might veto the bill.

Women gained the right to breast-feed their children in public places but not to get emergency contraception without a prescription. Parents will soon be able to send their children to charter schools, which the Assembly enabled, but they won't know whether politicians will be able to fully fund a promised plan for traditional public schools.

In Baltimore, voters will have to go to the primary polls in September for the 2004 mayor's race because lawmakers couldn't make a deal to close the 14-month gap. In Allegany County, tip-jar gambling was expanded from private clubs into bars and restaurants.

And in Halethorpe, Eileen F. Martindale, a 75-year-old hairdresser, will have to continue to ride the buses to Atlantic City and Charles Town if she wants to try her luck. More than not having a place nearby to play the slots, she laments the loss of all that gambling money to other states. "It's a damn shame," she said. "All this money going down the road, down the road, down the road. ... Maryland needs the money."

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