Leaders to push Ehrlich on taxes

Miller, Busch say package must be passed next year for the good of the state

October 18, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE - The General Assembly's top officers said yesterday that they will place a major tax package on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s desk next year and urge him to set aside deeply held opposition and let it take effect for the good of the state.

"The governor is going to have to compromise on some issues. What he is going to have to do, if he wants to be the governor for all the people, he's going to have to let it pass without his signature," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "That's what I'm going to pound on him."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said that if a tax proposal isn't adopted during the 90-day legislative session that begins in January, the ability to gain new revenues will dissipate as the 2006 state elections approach.

"What you need is a fair and equitable tax package," Busch said. "After this year, the political will will be gone; I can guarantee you that."

Ehrlich, a Republican, has steadfastly promised to veto a sales or income tax increase, saying the state's spending needs can be met through cuts and a slots gambling program.

The governor would probably not let a sales or income tax bill become law without his signature, his office said, even if the tactic allows him to blame the Assembly for forcing it on him.

"I don't foresee that," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "It's highly unlikely, and not the governor's style."

Busch and Miller, both Democrats, did not specify what type of tax increase was preferable during breakfast remarks to a policy conference of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Even though relations between the two legislative leaders clearly remain frosty, both agreed that discussions of how to close a $700 million gap between revenues and expenditures in a $22 billion budget would dominate next year's session.

They said they supported a gasoline tax to pay for transportation programs, as well as corporate-loophole closings.

Miller cast himself as a conciliator, saying he would support whatever mix of taxes and gambling that could get enough votes to pass and pay for the $1.3 billion Thornton plan for public school education.

"Whatever it takes to get the job done," he said.

But the Senate president said that because most of Ehrlich's advisers come from Washington, they think along ideological lines, and are overly wedded to the Republican mantra of no new taxes. The governor hears the same message from his fund-raising guru, Dick Hug, a member of the Board of Regents, Miller said.

"I'm asking him to put aside those advisers, and listen to the people and do what's right," Miller said. "He's spending a little more time raising money and campaigning than I think he should, rather than spending elbow grease to solve this budget problem."

Busch said talk of taxes is premature. The first step, he said, is an evaluation by Ehrlich and other leaders on what the state should be spending on public education, higher education, transportation, health care and the state work force.

After priorities are set, he said, the state should determine how much money is needed to pay for them - and then raise it. The result, he said, would be "a fair and equitable revenue package that is going to grow."

Busch and Miller are not ready to retreat from the six-year timetable for the Thornton education plan, even though discussions on program alterations have begun.

"I'm assuming that the expectations of Marylanders are we are going to pay for [Thornton]," the speaker said, accusing Ehrlich of going back on his promises.

"The governor campaigned on fully funding Thornton; now they are backing away," Busch said.

Fawell said that Ehrlich will include a $388 million installment for the education plan for the budget that takes effect July 1. But after that, without a new revenue source, the program would have to be altered, administration officials say.

Despite insistence from Democrats that more taxes are needed in addition to slots to fund education, health care and other programs, Ehrlich holds a different view, Fawell said.

"You combine new revenue through slots, budget cuts and federal revenues ... and the governor expects it will get us a long way toward balancing the budget."

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