Time for adult decision-making in Annapolis

February 01, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have laid out two very different approaches to Maryland's financial problems and their future.

Speaker Busch says Marylanders must pay for their lunch: their public education, their roads and bridges and all the other services they enjoy.

Governor Ehrlich asks lawmakers to cover much of the tab with slot machines. Without gambling, he says now, Maryland can't afford the $1.3 billion education package he promised to fund during his campaign. That linkage -- public education with gambling -- would amount to a withdrawal from the state's historic commitment to public education.

He's funded the so-called Thornton education initiative, but he says the out years are in doubt without slots. He's back to the General Assembly with virtually the same proposal that failed last year -- accompanied by his more pointed message that education funding depends on passage of his bill.

Mr. Ehrlich says his no-new-taxes position is a campaign promise he won't break. But critics are asking about another promise they remember.

"He said he'd fund [Thornton] regardless of whether we had slots," says Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

In a sense, every state or local program will now rise or fall on the shifting winds of new gambling. Local governments are being told they're getting no reduction in state financial aid. But officials of both county and municipal government are raising taxes, laying off workers and wondering why the weight of the problem has been shifted to them.

Meanwhile, in a significant bow toward the governor, Speaker Busch has suggested a series of guidelines that should be followed if the Assembly does choose to balance the budget on the backs of gamblers.

The state should build the facilities on state-owned land, borrowing money from state agencies that can borrow at lower interest. It should put the management contracts out to bid. All of this would avoid enriching several millionaire racetrack owners (most slots would be at tracks under the Ehrlich plan) and maximize the take for the taxpayer.

If part of the objective is to save the racing industry, money could be set aside for that purpose. But because slots wouldn't close the growing budget gap, the speaker says, a penny sales tax increase is needed. In his State of the State speech last week, the governor said he wants to see a spirit of compromise in the Assembly -- but he wants a "clean" slots bill, a bill unconnected with a sales tax increase.

"I hope the governor is sincere when he talks about this not becoming like Capitol Hill -- not becoming so partisan," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore. "I'll take his word for it, but at the same time he said, `Pass a clean slots bill.' That to me says no amendments. If there's going to be a slots bill, there's got to be some significant changes to that bill. So that was a real contradiction."

Administration sources say the bill need not be amendment-free, but it can't be linked with a sales tax. That's the meaning of "clean" in this context.

But, if not slots, what?

"We need to have ideas," said Del. Ann Marie Doory of Baltimore. "He's our executive, and I didn't hear a whole lot of ideas that would actually solve the state's problems. And the major problem we have is the gap in our budget."

Speaker Busch, of course, says slots represent, in effect, a broken promise since they are an involuntary tax. And, he says, they're "the only tax that comes with an addiction."

The governor says slots are not a tax -- and certainly not a tax levied on the unwary. They are, he says, a form of entertainment that calls for "adult decisions." If people gamble away their paychecks or their houses, they're being immature, and the state will set aside some of the slots money to deal with their addiction.

The state will beg you to play as it does with the lottery -- "Let yourself play," etc. -- and then treat you if your decisions fall closer to calamity than to adult.

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

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