April 11, 2003

HAVING HAPPILY promised to veto several tax increases, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. now proposes an assault on the state's money-saving AAA bond rating.

He calls it protecting the taxpayer, but it's likely to have the opposite effect.

Frustrated by the General Assembly's refusal to pass his ill-conceived slot machine gambling bill, Mr. Ehrlich promises to veto revenue-raising initiatives - most, if not all, of which he supported before slots died.

The latest target is a 5-cent increase in the state property tax, now at 8 cents per $100 of valuation. The nickel increase would raise $165 million for the payment of principal and interest on borrowing for public works projects: roads and bridges, schools and the like.

In all, the governor's actions would force a total of $300 million in new budget cuts, this after he and the Assembly pared $700 million during the budget-making process.

Fortunately, Mr. Ehrlich cannot have his way on these taxes without support from the state Board of Public Works. To pass, his proposals would need a vote from Comptroller William Donald Schaefer or Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the board's other members.

Marylanders must hope these more seasoned public officials will immediately make clear to Mr. Ehrlich that they won't back a thoughtless attack on government programs or the state's credit rating, the highest offered by Wall Street analysts. Only a handful of other states have an AAA rating, a symbol of prudent governing.

Mr. Ehrlich's most recent veto threat comes on the eve of his plan to tour the state, reaching out to voters who he believes support his pro-slots position. He also plans to trumpet his decision to veto the various taxes on corporations - including a loophole-closing provision that would prohibit businesses from using tax shelters in Delaware. Perhaps he thought he had to preserve consistency by opposing the property tax increase, too.

But political trifling with the bond rating is a breathtaking initiative - particularly for a Republican who prides himself on careful stewardship of the public's money.

In the end, Mr. Ehrlich's flurry of veto threats will be seen as a transparent effort to hide a disappointing first legislative session.

What he's doing now would make matters worse - for him and for the state of Maryland.

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