STATE DIGEST

The Baltimore Sun

GOP plan seeks repeal of computer-services tax

Republican delegates are proposing an alternative budget plan they say would allow Maryland to repeal its new tax on computer services, solve the state's remaining budget problems and shore up the rainy day fund by limiting the rate of growth in spending.

The GOP legislators would accept all the cuts proposed by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services; defer saving for state employee retirement benefits; put off funding a portion of the state's landmark education funding program designed to help systems where costs are high; eliminate vacant positions; reduce transportation funding by $100 million; and pay for some capital projects with bonds instead of operating funds.

In all, the GOP says its proposals would save $429 million in state taxpayer funds and $642 million overall.

"We owe this to future budgets and to future generations," Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland, said at a news conference yesterday. "We cannot continue to spend to be popular."

Bradley Olson

Senate panel approves speed-camera bill

A Senate panel modified legislation proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration that would allow state and local law enforcement agencies to use speed cameras on streets with speed limits up to 45 mph, in school zones and near highway construction zones.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which approved the bill yesterday, changed it so that drivers exceeding the posted speed limit by 12 mph could be issued a ticket, up from 10 mph. The lawmakers also lowered the proposed fine to $40 from $75, noting concerns that the purpose should be to improve safety, not raise revenue.

The speeding citations would not be charged against drivers' records, and only warning notices would be issued for the first five months. The administration had proposed a one-year lag time before tickets are issued.

The legislation now moves to the full Senate. The House of Delegates has not acted on a companion measure.

Laura Smitherman

Senate tentatively OKs power-plant fees bill

The Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill to raise the fees power plants and other industries pay to have their air pollution monitored, despite warnings that the increases could force some companies out of business.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration is supporting the air pollution permit fee increases, which would enable the Department of the Environment to fill long-vacant inspector positions.

Under the bill, the annual fees that companies must pay for permits to release air pollution would increase from $42 per ton of pollutants to $50 per ton. Environmental officials say they have just 18 inspectors now to keep tabs on more than 11,000 different sources of air pollution, and budget cuts have forced them to leave 26 positions vacant.

The fee increase would enable the department to raise $1.3 million in the next year, said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. Reductions in federal aid have left the state environmental agency facing up to a $1 million deficit in its program to monitor and enforce federal and state air pollution laws, Pinsky said.

But critics have complained that the fee increases would hurt manufacturers already struggling financially and could force electric rates still higher.

"We're piling on our businesses," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican representing the lower Eastern Shore. He warned that the fees might drive some companies under or out of state.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Franchot urges ban on video gambling

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has long opposed expansion of gambling in Maryland, called on lawmakers yesterday to approve legislation that would ban video gambling machines by next year.

Arguing that the machines are similar to slots and should have been confiscated years ago, Franchot's comments came in advance of a Senate committee hearing today on a bill that would prohibit bar owners and others from keeping the machines.

"The gambling industry is making a killing on these operations," Franchot said, standing in front a Baltimore County tavern that has licenses for three of the machines. "The time has come to put an end to it."

A 2006 report by the Abell Foundation estimated that nearly 3,500 machines are operating in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, bringing in $91 million to $182 million a year in gross revenue. The report suggests operators are underreporting revenues to reduce their tax burden.

The proposed ban is expected to face opposition from owners and operators of the machines and some nonprofit organizations that depend on revenues generated by them.

Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for Frank Moran & Sons, a Baltimore County company that manufactures electronic bingo machines - which the legislation also would ban - said that state officials have not proposed a way to replace the revenue that would be lost for programs if the ban is approved.

"If you do away with all of this local activity, who is going to provide the money for the ... causes that are funded?" Bereano said. "No one's proposing any replacement for it financially."

John Fritze

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