A year for saying no

April 09, 2003

LED BY HOUSE SPEAKER Michael E. Busch, Maryland lawmakers gave Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a refresher course in power sharing during the now-completed legislative session.

They rejected Mr. Ehrlich's ill-conceived slot machine gambling bill, balancing the state's $22.4 billion budget instead with a combination of program cuts and taxes.

Unfortunately, the governor threatens to undo their work by vetoing a $135 million tax package needed to keep the plan in balance. He's waving the veto pen because lawmakers trashed his slots bill.

A veto will mean more cuts that hurt real people. Mr. Ehrlich should think twice.

If he follows through, he will complicate a really difficult task: finding a way to deal with budget deficits of at least $1 billion a year that will continue until the imbalance between spending and income is resolved.

The prospect of another $135 million in reductions has county government and representatives of various agencies lining up to defend their budgets: With approval of the Board of Public Works, Mr. Ehrlich can make any necessary cuts without approval of the General Assembly.

The pressure to say yes to slots will grow, but the Assembly ought to let this year's no stand as the final answer. Maryland's citizens, not gamblers, must pay for services.

Mr. Ehrlich scorns the House for partisan obstructionism, but the citizens should be grateful: Mr. Busch asked the critical questions - the Assembly's function. Was the state unnecessarily enriching owners of the tracks where slots would be located? Were local jurisdictions adequately compensated for the impact on their neighborhoods?

Mr. Ehrlich's failure on slots seemed to embolden others to confront him as the 90-day session went along. His nominee for secretary of the environment, Lynn Y. Buhl, was rejected. Unprecedented, historians said. Governors always get their nominees.

And a Senate committee, led by Montgomery County's Brian E. Frosh, refused to pass his gun violence bill. He allowed Project Exile, designed to improve the chances for convicting gun-wielding criminals, to die.

The Assembly and the governor did say yes on several important objectives, however, as they:

Reinforced the not-for-profit status of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, refocusing the Blues on their historic mission: coverage for the hard-to-insure.

Eased regulations for charter schools - an Ehrlich priority - making the state eligible for federal funds.

Gave Baltimore $24 million for drug treatment, just $1 million less than requested.

Added a $5 fee to vehicle registrations to support the emergency trauma centers.

Continued the heritage tax credit, which is critical to Baltimore's west-side development, but capped it at $23 million and $15 million over the next two years.

Continued a regional transportation plan, funding for the Red Line from the Social Security complex in Woodlawn through downtown to Fells Point, and Montgomery County's Intercounty Connector.

Unfortunately, the Assembly said no to keeping a moratorium on the death penalty, in spite of a report suggesting that race has much to do with its imposition.

The decision to defer grappling with projected deficits had immediate, concrete significance. The Assembly and the governor cut $67 million from higher education and $30 million from a fund to give raises to public school teachers, and reduced eligibility for a child health insurance program.

Unless the governor and the Assembly find a way to deal with the structural deficit, more such cuts - perhaps a doomsday for too many of the vulnerable - will come.

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