Time to cut bait in Annapolis

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley's tax plan will test the state's tolerance for decisive leadership. His proposal to raise taxes virtually across the board may revive a government paralyzed by debt and by an unending debate over slot machine gambling.

And, as if long-term financial concerns were not pressing enough, allies and advisers say the new levies must be in place by the first day of 2008 or the state loses more than $500 million.

Other Maryland governors and legislatures created almost all of the so-called structural deficit - or simply watched it grow to $1.7 billion. Mr. O'Malley bids now to retire that obligation, most of it incurred when Maryland put billions of new dollars into public education without a funding source. It also cut the income tax without addressing the budget implications.

To get even, the governor has proposed not only tax increases but also a comprehensive overhaul of the tax system. And he wants to make it happen virtually overnight. He's calling for a special session of the General Assembly in early November.

"Unprecedented," says House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

He's probably right. Maryland governors have said for years that fundamental change was needed to shift the tax system from its manufacturing base to the current service economy. It just hasn't happened, for obvious reasons. Marylanders - and their representatives - like other Americans, are tax-averse, even in the wealthiest state in the nation.

The governor's proposal faces another old problem. The three most important men in Annapolis still can't get themselves on the same page.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and two Democratic leaders - Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Mr. Busch - never found a way to govern effectively together.

Now, with Democrats in all three positions, there are still major policy differences among them. The onus will be squarely on them to find ways of dealing with a problem none of them can deny or ignore.

Under the governor's plan, virtually every tax on the books would be raised or lowered, and there would be slot machine gambling to pay for government initiatives ranging from propping up the horse racing industry to conserving open space.

Mr. Miller apparently endorses the governor's plan, more or less. So the man destined to be marked as the holdout is, once again, Mr. Busch. It was the speaker who took much of the heat for blocking slots bills for the last four years. He opposed more gambling, but his House passed a slots bill that was killed in the Senate.

He says he wants to support the governor, but he thinks a special session in November is potentially ruinous. He feels the scope of work laid out in recent days simply cannot be handled in an orderly way in a short period. Mr. Busch says such sessions should be reserved for emergencies, such as the energy crisis last year. To expect legislators to vote intelligently on so many complex issues, he says, is unreasonable. "You're going to ask legislators to make the most defining vote of their careers," he says.

It's anti-democratic, Mr. Busch suggests, because it urges action on governmental policy initiatives large enough in scope to occupy the General Assembly for two 90-day legislation sessions. And it urges these actions with too little consideration by interested groups, all of which will want to be heard at legislative hearings.

Mr. Busch says he wants to work with the governor, but his tone suggests profound concern about the process adopted so far.

"We're elected officials," he says. "We swore an oath to [uphold] the public trust. We're not slowing down the process or quickening it to cut off debate. Citizens want to debate."

Others say Mr. Busch is temporizing, looking for a way to defeat slots once again. He has said the House has many slots opponents and predicts a difficult road for expanded gambling in a body where Republicans are unlikely to give many votes to a slots plan rejected when Mr. Ehrlich was leading the charge.

It's all about the Democrats now. They can keep dodging reality, or they can start to govern.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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