Will the real problem-solvers please stand up?

December 07, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

DRENCHED IN praise for their statesmanship, three of Maryland's most influential leaders offered a grim preview of the coming legislative frolic in Annapolis. To achieve any sort of positive outcome for the state, they'll have to be as "truly unparalleled," "superior" and "brilliant" as they were said to be. One of these worthies was said to have "a golden star above him."

Surely they are skillful and accomplished. By their own candid appraisals of the state's political and fiscal posture, the usual skill level may not suffice this year.

Steven L. Kreseski, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief of staff, told more than 100 businessmen, lobbyists and elected officials Wednesday that Mr. Ehrlich is ready to work with the Democrat-controlled General Assembly on a range of matters, including the Thornton Commission's demand for $400 million for education in a year when the state budget is at least $700 million out balance.

"Work with" may mean finding a new revenue source such as slots or some sort of tax or fee that the tax-averse governor can live with. Or it may mean scaling back on the Thornton law's voracious appetite for state money. Or it may mean a joint blood-letting in which the two branches join hands to slice state spending by another $700 million.

Mr. Kreseski was followed to the podium at a Camden Yards function room by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who seemed determined to force a reckoning with various facets of reality.

Governor Ehrlich has promised not to raise sales or income taxes, but anyone who thinks Marylanders are not paying more taxes isn't paying attention to their local tax bills, he said. "Trickle-down" taxation has, so far, kept local services flowing without much interruption because local officials have raised taxes - by as much as the state raised taxes over the last eight years, he said. Whether that approach results in a "fair and equitable" tax structure for Maryland, he said, was at the very least doubtful.

And, he said, the approach can't be sustained without damage. More cuts in higher education aid and a failure to repay funds borrowed from the transportation trust fund will have an impact on economic development. New spending will be demanded by federal mandate: Eleven percent of the state's teachers, Mr. Busch said, do not now meet qualification standards of No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's kindergarten-through-high-school education initiative. To reach the required level of qualification, financial incentives will be needed, he suggested.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. followed the speaker. He said Maryland should not walk away from its historic commitment to higher education for poor and middle-income Marylanders, a commitment much in doubt with the recent increases in tuition. By name, he cited Richard E. Hug, a member of the Board of Regents and one of the breakfast guests, as the main architect of a plan to double tuition.

The problem for government leaders today, Mr. Miller said, lies in the polarization of politics. He said he welcomes Governor Ehrlich's offers of cooperation, but he said other Republicans seem determined to fight until the last political dog is hung to preserve their anti-tax purity.

Already, Republican representatives in the Assembly are resisting an increase in the gasoline tax - one levy thought to be acceptable in a car-driven society - because they are terrified of being knocked off by opponents who will capitalize on any vote for higher taxes. (Where are term limits when we need them?) So powerful are those senators and delegates, apparently, that their governor has seemed stymied in his desire to raise money for highway or mass transit projects.

And what of slots? Representatives of the racing industry, including the breakfast meeting's host, Alan Rifkin, were certainly hoping slots could slide over the wreckage of polarization and the deficit debris to give Maryland the free money of gambling. It was Mr. Rifkin who handed out all the introductory bouquets, and like many others in Annapolis, he's got horses in the slots race. Joseph A. De Francis, one of the owners of Laurel and Pimlico and one of Mr. Rifkin's clients, was in the audience, too. Others will try to deny Mr. De Francis a big payday.

So perhaps "contentious" was the most appropriate word Mr. Rifkin uttered all morning, his description of the coming legislative session. Surely this legislative session has the potential for conflict. See how quickly the 90-day meeting will be called a train wreck in the making.

Mr. Rifkin and all of Maryland must hope that his words of introductions turn out to be accurate and then some.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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