Crunch time

April 06, 2004

THE MARYLAND General Assembly's legislative session is a bit like an NBA playoff game - the matter is usually decided in the waning minutes. With just six days left in the session, that crunch time is at hand. And this year the sports analogy seems more appropriate than ever - the whole mess may wind up in overtime.

The slots impasse hasn't helped. Many worthy bills have been held hostage by the budget standoff. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s unwillingness to consider alternative solutions to the state's fiscal woes has been the main obstacle, but it hasn't been the only impediment. Politics, personalities and the first divided government in nearly four decades have played a part.

Still, voters have a right to expect their elected officials in Annapolis to hunker down and finish their work in these final hours. The pressure of a ticking clock can be just the boost they need to make the hard decisions. Here's where to start:

Budget. It's not enough to approve this year's spending plan. Lawmakers need to come up with a compromise to close future deficits or they'll just be postponing the problem. The best ideas so far have come from House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who would raise the state sales tax by a penny and temporarily increase the income tax for high wage earners.

Slot machines. A bad idea last year has not improved much with time. It's likely up to the House of Delegates to kill this misguided proposal.

Flush tax. Mr. Ehrlich's plan to levy a small monthly fee on customers of public water and sewer service is critically important to the future health of the Chesapeake Bay. Disagreement over how best to include septic-tank users can't be allowed to doom this idea.

Medical malpractice. Despite failed efforts at tort reform, lawmakers can make a modest improvement to the state's malpractice mess by enacting legislation promoting mediation to resolve lawsuits.

Historic rehabilitation tax credit. This program is considered vital to Baltimore's economic revitalization, but legislation to keep it going has been botched by the House. Mr. Ehrlich and Senate leaders need to find a way to rescue it - or efforts such as the city's west-side redevelopment will be devastated.

Transportation. Mr. Ehrlich's plan to boost transportation spending has been cut in half, but it still deserves enactment - even if raising biennial car registration fees isn't the ideal way to finance it.

Delaware loophole. There's no reason why companies should be allowed to hide profits in Delaware-based mail-drops - or be rewarded for doing it in the past.

School construction. By closing a loophole that allows limited liability companies to avoid certain real estate taxes, the state could set aside millions of dollars to build and rehabilitate schools - if the Senate will back the idea.

Voting machines. Voters deserve the opportunity to have a paper record from touch-screen voting machines this year and not wait until 2006.

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