No evidence of progress on key issues

The Political Game

Impasse: Legalization of slot machines and soaring medical malpractice rates remain sticking points as the new General Assembly session approaches.

December 07, 2004|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

PRAGMATISM dictates that Maryland legalizes slot machine next year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday in a pre-General Assembly briefing that foreshadowed another year of gridlock on top policy issues facing the state.

Miller also said that he thinks the prospects of a special session this month to address rising medical malpractice insurance rates is unlikely because Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not agreed to a dedicated source of funds to help keep insurance costs in check.

Miller, a Democrat, reaffirmed his position that Maryland needs slots to provide money for state operations and to disarm the Republican governor, who is poised to enter the 2006 election cycle ready to blame Democrats for failing to pass slots, a nontax revenue source that could stave off budget cuts.

"Pragmatically, you can't be opposed to them because you need the revenue," Miller said at a breakfast meeting in Beltsville of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. The Senate has passed a slots bill the past two years, but the House of Delegates killed the legislation both times.

Also attending the breakfast, House Speaker Michael E. Busch reiterated his position that slots are a poor way to raise revenue for state operations. Busch reminded the audience that in conservative Virginia, a tax package was approved by lawmakers last year to bolster the commonwealth's threatened bond rating.

"They didn't look for a quick fix," Busch said. "They looked for a responsible way to fund their government."

Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said yesterday that the spending plan Ehrlich submits next month will contain deep cuts in programs to close a structural budget deficit without raising taxes. State agencies are preparing budgets with 12 percent less funding than this year, although it is not clear if the governor will approve all the reductions.

"We will reduce spending by a tremendous amount when the governor submits his budget," DiPaula said.

Miller senses blame for those cuts heading toward Democrats, and believes a slots program -- which could generate $800 million and recapture money Marylanders are spending on gambling in Delaware and West Virginia -- could blunt the impact.

"It means the Democrats are playing into his hands by not passing slots," Miller said. "It means the right wing of the [Republican] party can downsize the government, and blame the Democrats."

DiPaula would not say whether Ehrlich planned to introduce a slots bill next year. But he said the governor is committed to closing a structural gap between revenues and expenses in the state's $24 billion budget by the end of his term.

On malpractice, Miller said he saw little chance of a special legislative session to lower insurance rates and prevent doctors from abandoning their practices, largely because Ehrlich has not yet agreed to impose a 2 percent premium tax on health maintenance organizations' policies to create a fund that would cap malpractice insurance rates. All other insurers pay the tax.

Miller and Busch both support the HMO tax.

Rupli enters contest to lead Md. Democrats

The race to succeed Isiah Leggett as Maryland Democratic Party chairman looked all but over last week after top elected Democrats decided to back former congressional candidate Terry Lierman. His big-name competition, party Treasurer Gary Gensler, dropped out of the race to care for his wife, who was found to have breast cancer.

Not so fast. Dan Rupli, a longtime party activist and attorney from Frederick, is in the race and determined to make the party reach out beyond the Baltimore-Washington axis into Maryland's rural -- and increasingly Republican -- counties.

Rupli sent a strongly worded letter to fellow party activists last week criticizing Democrats for what looked like a back-room deal to decide the next chairman. Congressional Democrats, county executives, General Assembly leaders and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley held a breakfast meeting at a Columbia hotel Nov.30 and closed ranks behind Lierman.

Rupli also complained that Democrats, who prize the diversity of their supporters, wound up choosing between two rich, middle-aged white guys from Montgomery County. (Full disclosure: Rupli is a white guy who grew up in Montgomery County.)

"The new Democratic chair must be a person who can politically organize all parts of the state around broad communities of interest, and not just about electoral `realities,' and narrow regional interests," Rupli wrote in a letter sent to party central committee members yesterday. "It is all about unifying our people, and building coalitions. I know how to do that."

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