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Top concerns are schools, state budget

THE BALTIMORE SUN

More than two-thirds of Maryland voters say they would be willing to pay an additional penny sales tax for improving schools, despite the staunch anti-tax stance being taken by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a new poll for The Sun released today shows.

To close the state's projected $736 million budget gap - an ever-higher priority for those surveyed - a majority of voters oppose just putting programs on the chopping block.

Instead, more than one-third say it should be accomplished only by raising taxes; 20 percent say tax increases and program cutbacks must be done in tandem to get the job done.

Half of Marylanders still support bringing slot machines to the state - Ehrlich's biggest legislative priority, and failure a year ago - but more than seven in 10 want them confined to specific locations such as racetracks or rural areas.

Even if slot machines are approved, voters overwhelmingly said, they don't want millions of the dollars raised to prop up the horse racing industry.

The Maryland Poll, conducted for the newspaper and Sunspot.net by Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., depicts some of the complex choices facing the General Assembly as it convenes Wednesday for its annual 90-day legislative session.

"I just don't think people would be opposed to another one-cent tax," said Frances Snyder, a retired Baltimore County bookkeeper. "I hate to see programs cut, especially education and cleaning up the bay."

Budget issues, which have emerged as a top concern after barely showing up on voters' radar just two years ago, remain the second-leading concern of state residents, running close behind worries about the quality of public schools.

Taken together, nearly half of likely voters feel these are the biggest problems facing the state, the ones people most want the governor and the legislature to take up in the next three months.

Other issues such as crime, the economy and the environment trail far behind in the single digits.

The poll of 1,200 likely voters was conducted by telephone Jan. 2 though Monday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

"The overwhelming message from voters is that education and the budget are dominant concerns, and everything else is pale in comparison," said Keith Haller, president of the polling firm. "Of all the possible ways to increase revenue at a time of a budget crisis, the sales tax is unquestionably the most politically palatable."

'Willing to sacrifice'

Ehrlich "has put his position in the sand," Haller added. "He's basically saying no taxes whatever. You don't want to come across as incorrigible, as insensitive when people are willing to sacrifice to deal with the budget crisis to make sure education and other critical concerns are at least taken care of."

But the governor isn't budging from his opposition to the sales tax, a position which he hasn't wavered from since his days on the campaign trail.

"That's the first number I've ever seen that would be that lopsided that would favor a sales tax increase. It's the most regressive major tax we have," Ehrlich said last week. "It's not going to happen, is the bottom line."

C. Timothy Tarr, a 51-year-old Gaithersburg engineer, is a Republican who voted for Ehrlich in 2002. He is not typically a proponent of higher taxes, but he does want to see quality public schools in Maryland. He would like to see the state's $1.3 billion landmark public schools reform initiative, known as the Thornton Plan, put in place, a plan that some elected officials have warned is in jeopardy without new dollars.

The Republican governor wants to pay for it, in part, with slot machines and has warned that the plan will have to be slashed without additional gambling revenue. Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch said a one-penny sales tax dedicated to the plan is a preferable source.

Many voters agree with Busch, according to the poll, and he said he is not surprised at the results now that people have had a year to see "what's at stake and have seen the alternatives."

The concept even has a majority of support among Ehrlich's base: 52 percent of Republicans surveyed support the penny tax, as do 56 percent of those who say they plan to vote for Ehrlich if he runs for re-election in 2006.

Tarr, a supporter of slot machines and casinos in Maryland, said he still thinks the sales tax might be the solution to the financial crunch facing schools.

"At the end of the day, if there's no other way to do it, that's what we have to do," Tarr said. "What are we if we're not an educated people? We can't go through life selling each other hamburgers."

Marylanders, on average, each pay $873 in sales, alcohol, cigarette and other levies, according to the state Department of Legislative Services. That's 40th in the country. The U.S. average is $1,099 per person. The state's 5-cent sales tax is a penny lower than most of its neighbors'.

William Cartwright, who works for Constellation Energy at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, said in lean times, government should cut back from "steak to hamburger," not go out and raise taxes.

In his business, he has "found all sorts of interesting ways to save money and be more efficient. I think there are tons of way to do that in government," the 50-year-old Solomons man said. "When a corporation has a bad year, everyone has to tighten up their belts a little bit. I don't see the same out of government. We've built in a lot of extras."

Ehrlich 'stubborn'

Snyder, the 76-year-old retiree, said she doesn't understand the hard-line stance Ehrlich is taking against raising taxes, especially in the face of the shortfall. "He's being really stubborn," she said.

Parkville resident Charles Hutton, a 36-year-old health care information analyst, worries about budget cuts that could go too deep if some taxes aren't increased.

"In cutting programs, it's costing a lot of jobs," he said. "In order for the economy to get well, you need to have consumers. I'd rather have a multitude of people pay taxes than see 10,000 people lose their jobs."

Paul E. Shurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said polling he has done shows a different result, that people prefer program cuts over tax increases.

"We have seen other recent polls that provide a very different answer to that question, and the governor hears every day from members of the public who overwhelmingly ask the governor to oppose raising taxes," he said.

Maryland is still a fairly progressive state, the poll shows. Nearly six in 10 voters said they favor protecting the environment, even if it costs some jobs, over bolstering the economy, even if it hurts the environment. And many Republican voters, who are conservative on fiscal and tax issues, feel that way about the environment.

More than half of voters said they support the death penalty, though less than half would extend it to people convicted of crimes committed when they were minors - a question prompted by the recent trial of Washington-area sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, 17 at the time of the crimes, who was tried in Virginia because Maryland doesn't execute minors. A jury recommended life in prison.

On the question of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, 50 percent of voters said they oppose them and 40 percent favor them.

One year into his term, meanwhile, Ehrlich's job approval remains quite high. A year ago, 56 percent of voters predicted in the Sun's poll that the former congressman would do a "good job," while 21 percent said they thought he would do a "poor job."

Even with Glendening

This year, he still enjoys a 56 percent job approval rating, with 28 percent disapproving.

His approval numbers equal the highest that voters gave his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, over the last four years of his term in office.

But looking beneath the surface, voters are not as supportive of the governor when asked how he is doing more specifically. Asked how he is handling the budget shortfall, for example, 50 percent have a negative opinion of Ehrlich. When asked how he is "changing the tone in Annapolis," one of his campaign promises, only 36 percent of voters have a positive view of how he is doing - 20 points lower than his overall job approval.

"Ehrlich has gotten through his first contentious year as governor with his personal popularity intact," Haller said. "On the flip side, if he doesn't effectively address the state budget or if his dealings with Annapolis come asunder, there will be danger signs for his popularity going forward."

Looking ahead to 2006 - an eternity in political time - a hypothetical gubernatorial match between Ehrlich and potential Democratic challenger Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is a statistical dead heat.

It's a tossup in the Baltimore region, with city voters behind O'Malley in a big way and Baltimore County narrowly going for the homegrown Ehrlich. The Washington region would go to O'Malley, the poll suggests. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has also talked about a run for governor, is 10 points behind Ehrlich at this point if they were to go head-to-head.

Garrison Still, a 48-year-old electronics engineer from Bel Air, voted for Ehrlich in the last election and would probably do so again. "He's very smooth," Still said. "I can see some things he's doing right."

Sun staff writers Johnathon E. Briggs and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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