David Nitkin on the General Assembly

Scott Hollenbeck, Westminster: Will The Sun report on bill[s] to raise taxes and the sponsors of the bills? Will The Sun report on who voted in favor of bills raising taxes and who voted against?

Nitkin: Yes, Scott, we will be reporting on tax bills, but we don't expect many this year. Unlike last year, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he anticipates no votes on bills to increase sales and income taxes. With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sure to veto them, there is no need for lawmakers to take risky votes. We will report on the votes. But if a particular day's story does not contain the vote tally you want, check out the General Assembly Web site at www.mlis.state.md.us. You can view votes on individual bills, and also check the House and Senate proceedings by date. The site is updated overnight.

Timothy Kjertown, Towson: Why is it so difficult to get information about how state delegates and senators vote in Maryland? The only time the general public knows how their representatives vote is the very rare occasions when The Sun or [Washington] Post choose to print the vote tallies. The state charges $800 for the Legislative Subscription Service to find out what is happening during the [General Assembly] session. That seems awfully unprogressive and archaic in this electronic age of Internet access, e-mail, etc. Is the state really so intent on keeping the general public in the dark?

The other question is why doesn't some entity (The Sun, Washington Post, WBAL, WJZ, MPT, WYPR, WMAR) make the information provided by the Legislative Subscription Service readily available to the online public?

Nitkin: Timothy, the $800 subscription service provides "real time" votes, and is probably intended for libraries, lobbyists and interest groups. The General Assembly Web site (address above) is a good source of bills, information and voting history, and is free. It is updated overnight. Check on individual bills, or daily proceedings, and you can see vote tallies. On major bills, we sometimes publish a box with all voting records. We will talk about doing it more often.

Mark, Baltimore: I was happy to hear about legislation to raise the state's minimum wage. Have legislators revealed how much of an increase they are proposing?

Nitkin: Mark, Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said his priority will be to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour. The main reason he is behind this idea is because he decided to let stand Gov. Ehrlich's veto of a "living wage" bill that would make companies receiving state contracts of more than $100,000 pay their workers at least $10.50 and hour. So the minimum wage hike is a consolation prize, of sorts -- and a wage increase that Miller says is more fair to rural areas.

Neil, Oakland: What can be done to snap the churlish, petulant Democratic "leaders" in this state out of their funk and work with the governor for true reform as mandated by the majority -- for example, slots?

Nitkin: Neil, I think Democratic leaders would deny they are in a funk. They say they are advocating for the wishes of their constituents. Many Democrats support slots, and Democrats also don't believe Ehrlich received a mandate in the last election. But Republicans feel Democrats in the House -- Speaker Busch in particular -- are blocking slots legislation in part to make the governor look ineffective. The most likely scenario for a slots bill passing is if Ehrlich wins re-election, and perhaps if Busch is no longer House speaker (there are no term limits for that position, but he, too, is up for re-election in 2006).

Elbert R. Henderson, Maryland: If the governor signs the current [medical malpractice reform] bill presented by the General Assembly, what will prevent insurance companies from raising the premiums a couple of years down the road? Then what? Work with the governor.

Nitkin: Elbert, nothing prevents insurance companies from raising their rates after the 5 percent cap expires in three years. The hope is that the tort reform measures have an impact by then, lowering the payouts by juries; and that perhaps the business cycle swings so that the issue is less of a crisis. Gov. Ehrlich believes that the legislation passed by the Assembly is a weak tool, and wants stronger legal reforms for what he said would be a more permanent fix.

Carolyn Hickstown, Joppa: Will something positive be accomplished in Annapolis this session? Or will we continue to see a power dance between the governor and the General Assembly?

Nitkin: Carolyn, the two may not be mutually exclusive. To be sure, we will continue to see a power dance. But if nothing else, the governor will propose and the General Assembly will pass a $24 billion budget that does not include tax increases, gives more than $200 million more to public education; $43 million more to higher education; retains the state's $500 million "rainy day" reserve account and preserves the state's coveted AAA bond rating. Some would view that as a fairly positive accomplishment, although it will push off a "structural deficit" problem for yet another year.

Denise Glasgow, New Carrollton: Now that the governor has vetoed the medical malpractice bill, and the legislature will override the veto, what does that mean? What are the next steps for the bill?

Nitkin: Denise, the bill now becomes law, after the Assembly overrode the governor's veto Tuesday. The governor said he will submit additional legislation for more tort reform, but the chances for passage are slim. It remains to be seen whether the legislation solves the "crisis" of doctors leaving their practices or retiring.

Lee, Baltimore: This is really getting ridiculous. Millions of Maryland dollars are traveling out of state every day. It is decades late to bring money in from other states. We need to do this [slots] just to keep our money here. The horse industry is all but lost. Waiting until they move the Preakness out like the rest of the horse racing industry is too late. Didn't we learn our lesson with the Colts? Mr. Busch should be thankful that I don't vote in his district, but I do encourage everyone that is in his district to vote him out.

Nitkin: Lee, there is state law that removes a tax break if the Preakness is moved, and lawmakers think there is little risk of that. In my view, the argument that Marylanders' money is leaving the state and going to slot machines elsewhere is the most effective argument in favor of slots. But there are good arguments on the other side, such as whether gambling is a regressive form of taxation, whether influential business interests should reap a windfall, and just where slots facilities should be located.

Martin B., Baltimore: Does it look like there will be any movement on slots? Are there any compromise bills being proposed by the legislature, or is Governor Ehrlich's bill the only one that will be considered? And finally, if there are other bills, would the governor consider signing them?

Nitkin: Martin, last year, the governor would have signed just about any slots bill presented to him. This year, it's not so clear, because the state would not be receiving slots revenue until after the 2006 election, so there is little political benefit in just passing any bill. Indeed, some Democrats in the Assembly want to pass a bill to remove the slots issue from the political debate in 2006, and that could be a reason for the governor to reject a bill that he doesn't like, if it reaches his desk. There will be lots of compromises proposed, but given the continued opposition of Democratic leaders in the House, most observers do not expect a slots bill to pass this year.

Mike Lofton, Harwood: I have read Sen. Miller's estimate that Maryland is losing $500 million in state revenue annually due to gambling in surrounding states. Assuming slot machines keep 10 percent of every dollar wagered and half of that goes to state government (the other half to the tracks), Marylanders would have to be wagering $10 billion annually in neighboring states. This amounts to roughly $2,500 for every Maryland resident over 18 years of age. I find this hard to believe. Has The Sun ever verified these claims? It may be that much of the public support for slots in Maryland is based on the bogus idea that the state is leaking huge sums of money. Thanks.

Nitkin: Mike, I asked my colleague, Greg Garland, to address this question. Greg is our resident expert on slots finances. Here is his response:

"The math may be accurate, but the writer makes a mistake that many people make when considering how much money people "lose" gambling to produce X amount of revenue. The important thing to remember is what experts call the churn -- basically people playing off "credits" they win playing slots. This, technically, is money being spent but is misleading.

For example, I may go to Charles Town Races & Slots with $100, but I might gamble to the tune of $1,500. Here's how: You win, you lose, you win. Most people don't cash out these "winnings" -- but just keep playing off them. Since machines are set to pay back on average around 93 cents or so for every dollar spent (also misleading, for different reasons) you end up winning small amounts a lot. So, my original $100 ebbs and flows. At the end of the day, I might have played $1,500 worth on the slots -- even though when I cashed out and left I only had $50 left in my pocket so my actual loss is $50.

The real number to look at is what casino's call the "win," which is the money left in the till after payouts to winning players."

(This is David: Now you see why he is the expert!)

Brett Zangl, Brooklyn: What will you do about [the] increasing crime and decreasing education that is going on in and around our town?

Nitkin: Brett, crime bills to be debated this year include a ban on assault weapons and stronger penalties for witness intimidation. The governor will propose and the Assembly will adopt another record increase for K-12 education, under year three of the so-called Thornton Plan.

McK Peterson, Baltimore: Why does the General Assembly only convene for 90 days? How can this policy be changed or modified?

Nitkin: McK, the Maryland Assembly is considered a citizen legislature. During the 2004 session, of 188 members, all but 37 had some other job. The figures may have changed slightly since then, because of some turnover. The 90-day term is contained in the state constitution, so an amendment -- passed by the legislature and adopted by voters -- would be needed to change it. There is little chance of that happening. For most people -- lawmakers, the public and the press -- 90 days a year seems like enough.

John Michaels, Annapolis: What do the Republican legislators have to do in order to make this a productive session, and which GOP senators and delegates are the most important to ensure Republican success?

Nitkin: John, because the GOP is such a minority in both chambers, success is now measured in staying unified, helping Gov. Ehrlich with his agenda and in forcing votes and offering arguments that highlight differences between Democrats and Republicans. It is not measured by passing bills, or even blocking bills.

The GOP leaders will be critical to that success: namely J. Lowell Stoltzfus and Andy Harris in the Senate; and George Edwards and Anthony O'Donnell in the House. Others to watch: senators David Brinkley, Alex Mooney and Sandy Schrader; and House members Chris Shank, Warren Miller, Gail Bates and Susan McComas. (That's far from an exhaustive list, my GOP friends, so don't get mad!)

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