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October 16, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley has put much on the line with his decision to call the General Assembly into special session on Oct. 29. His purpose is not only to solve next year's $1.7 billion budget deficit but also to finally resolve the state's ongoing structural deficit - the growing gap between spending and tax collections - that has existed since the $1.3 billion Thornton aid to education plan was adopted in 2002 without a funding source.

We opposed a special session. Our preference would have been for such a complex proposal to undergo the fullest possible review and for public involvement to be maximized during a 90-day regular session with a budget in hand instead of a shorter-term whirlwind without one.

But the governor's argument that waiting until January would put the state $500 million deeper in the hole has some merit as well. He is taking a big gamble; success is not guaranteed. If lawmakers come to Annapolis early but fail to approve a deficit plan, they'll still have to return in January to the same problem - with weakened leadership and little reason to expect a more favorable outcome.

Admittedly, what's involved is no short-term fix, such as raiding the transportation and open space programs or slashing higher-education spending. Mr. O'Malley's ambitions are greater; if successful, he would not only address the continuing structural deficit but also make the state's tax system a bit more fair and progressive.

To ensure support for his ambitious agenda in the General Assembly, the governor has adopted an all-or-nothing strategy. Everything is interconnected. Pull one thread from his $2 billion tapestry and it all falls apart. Theoretically, legislators won't be able to pass legislation to expand health care to the uninsured (a politically popular move) without also signing off on the penny increase in the sales tax, possibly the most politically distasteful (but also most helpful to solving the budget shortfall) of all the proposals.

All of it could sink under the weight of legalizing slots, however. It would be far better to decouple slots from the deficit reduction plan. Even with talk of a statewide slots referendum, the issue appears intractable. Let the slots proposal rise or fall on its own merits. It would be expected to contribute only $27 million to next year's budget anyway.

Now, the burden will be on lawmakers to examine closely what the governor has proposed as well as what alternatives may exist and coalesce behind a solution that is rational, that is equitable and that eliminates the long-term deficit.

That would be a notable achievement for all involved.

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