The Annapolis agenda

January 14, 2004

TODAY, AS the Maryland General Assembly convenes for its annual 90-day session, lawmakers can take comfort in the familiar surroundings of cheery Colonial Annapolis. Less charmingly, they'll confront another familiar scene: a gaping budget deficit and a standoff over slot machines.

Little has changed since the last time the Assembly met, including the debilitating political animus that continues to fester within the Annapolis political triumvirate of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic leaders Michael E. Busch and Thomas V. Mike Miller.

On paper, Maryland's budget deficit is not as bad as the shortfalls facing other states. The gap for next year is about $700 million, less than 4 percent of a $22 billion state budget. Lawmakers have traditionally approached looming deficits (in the early 1990s, for instance) through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases.

But the problems seem more intractable than ever this year, tied to Mr. Ehrlich's dogged quest for slot machines and uncertainty over the state's long-term commitment to public education, the $1.3 billion Thornton Plan. Both efforts are at a crossroads, and in the governor's mind, they are linked. Solving the state's fiscal puzzle now requires more than budget-balancing; it demands the untangling of a Gordian knot of good and bad public policy.

Last year, this was a new legislature dealing with a new governor. Inexperience can no longer be an excuse. This Assembly will be judged on whether it finds a long-term solution to the state's financial woes, preserves vital education aid, and just says no to expanded gambling. Such a course is difficult, yes, but not impossible. A few stubborn, uncommunicative politicians must not stand in the way.

The legislature's work won't stop there, of course. There are dozens of other critical issues facing lawmakers in Annapolis that run the gamut from cleaning up sewage plants to financing highway construction and more fairly taxing corporations. Here is a checklist of the most important items on the agenda:

Education - Preserve full funding for the Thornton Plan, a particularly critical need for Baltimore and other financially ailing subdivisions. Also hold harmless aid to higher education, an area hit hard by budget cuts last year, and explore capping future tuition increases.

Transportation - Replenish the state's bare highway and transit cupboard with an increase in titling fees and a nickel on the gas tax. With the new money, legislators must get a commitment for Baltimore-area projects, particularly transit links west to Woodlawn and east to Morgan State University. Also, continue the 40 percent farebox recovery rate for the city's transit lines.

Environment - Support the governor's plan to add a modest surcharge to water bills to improve sewage treatment plants, and upgrade the state's "brownfields" program to make industrial sites more attractive for redevelopment.

Economic development - Fulfill this year's promised commitments for city projects: $9 million for west-side development and $15 million for the east-side life science and technology park. Keep the state's tax credit for historic preservation and close the Delaware loophole to prevent corporations from avoiding income taxes.

Health - Address the recent surge in physician malpractice costs without unfairly curtailing victims' rights, improve the uninsured's access to community-based health care, and reduce Medicaid costs without harming the poor. Continue the city's lead paint initiative. Increase funds for community-based drug abuse treatment.

Public safety - Update and expand Maryland's ban on assault-style weapons to offset diminished federal efforts. Increase penalties for intimidating criminal victims and witnesses.

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