The challenge, again

MEMBERS OF THE Maryland General Assembly departed Annapolis last spring like errant 9-year-olds, their most pressing homework left incomplete. As the state's political leaders gather again this Wednesday for the start of another 90-day session, they have a chance to atone, to mend old wounds, confront tough issues, end partisan bickering and find common ground.

So why does that seem so unlikely?


Alas, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch remain in a depressingly familiar strait - the same deadlock over slot machines and the state's $1.8 billion budget deficit that they were stuck in last April. Mr. Busch doesn't want to expand gambling, but he might budge if the governor agrees to raise taxes. Mr. Ehrlich likes slot machines, but he won't go near a broad increase in taxes, particularly Mr. Busch's favorite budget-balancer - a penny more on the sales tax.

The clash looms as the spinning black hole of Annapolis. No issue of fiscal consequence can move through the legislature unless this conflict is resolved. And as if this crisis doesn't seem dire enough, be reminded: At stake in the non-debate is the state's ambitious schools initiative - the five-year, $1.3 billion Thornton Commission plan to boost public education statewide.


Some legislators grumble that Thornton is the deficit, and there is some truth to that. When approved by lawmakers in 2002, the plan lacked financing. It still does. Mr. Ehrlich has once again tied Thornton to slots. His message: If slots aren't acceptable, then Thornton gets scaled back after this year. Others in Annapolis, fearful of the looming budgetary train wreck, have even suggested recently that Thornton be deferred, stretched out or delayed no matter what happens to slots. Neither approach is particularly responsible.

In Annapolis, it is said that the first two years of any new administration are its most important. Now is the only chance for a newly elected governor to be bold. His political clout is at its height and voters at their most forgiving (since the next election is two years away). Last year was a painful lesson. This year may be the state's best hope.

With so much at stake, voters should rightly expect that Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would have locked themselves in a room by now, vowing not to emerge until they've found a way out of this mess. Maybe even the beginnings of a compromise. But that has not happened yet. By all accounts, the state's most powerful leaders are barely on speaking terms. How depressing. How irresponsible. How ... familiar.

Yet even in this gloom, there is a flicker of hope. The Thornton funds haven't been cut - yet. The administration believes its most pressing problem - next year's $700 million chunk of the deficit - can be bridged through budget cuts and modest new sources of revenue (with neither a major tax hike nor money from slots as part of that plan). That's not a long-term solution, of course. But there also are signs that Mr. Ehrlich will be better prepared for this session than last. His agenda is more ambitious, his State House team a bit more experienced, the economic outlook less bleak.

That's a start. What we need now is for both sides to demonstrate a willingness to compromise. Mr. Ehrlich needs to stop being absolute about slots and taxes. Democrats need to hold their wagging tongues, offer new approaches (rejecting the advice of party hacks who'd rather they sandbag the governor), and then find a solution that they, and the governor, can endorse.

Experience tells us that the State House pot will have to boil a while before that could happen. Everyone will get steamed and the rhetoric will fly. But ultimately, the politicians should be graded not on what gets said but on what gets accomplished: The coming 90 days are the best indicator yet of who deserves favor - or a quick dismissal in 2006.