ANNAPOLIS – The state Senate’s top leader warned colleagues Thursday not to “draw a line in the sand” over slot machines and new taxes, issues that have polarized lawmakers in recent weeks as possible remedies for a mounting budget deficit.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, made the remarks one day before Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s budget plan was due to the General Assembly.
“People say no taxes, no this, no that,” Miller said. “It’s going to require the ultimate flexibility by all 47 of us to try to find the solution to the state’s budget situation.”
Maryland faces a $1.7 billion deficit, leaving lawmakers little choice but to cut programs while finding new revenue sources. Slots and potential increases in the gas tax are two of Ehrlich’s most discussed means for generating money.
Although they’re lucrative, slots draw fire from some lawmakers who find any talk of expanding state gambling distasteful.
Proponents, including Miller and Ehrlich, say an estimated $400 million in licensing fees will help state education programs. Opponents, meanwhile, decry slot machines as an added burden on the poor.
“Without drawing a line in the sand, I’m against it,” said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery. “I haven’t seen a proposal I like.”
And some lawmakers are seeking constituents’ guidance.
“I’m getting more `noes’ than `yeses'” said Delegate Obie Patterson, D- Prince George’s. “They’re saying they don’t want slots in Maryland. But it’s early in the session, and there’s so much more to learn about this whole process.”
Miller also has no control over House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, a strong opponent of slots. Even if the Senate passes a budget including slot revenues, there is no guarantee that a similar version will pass in the House.
That doesn’t worry Miller.
“I’m confident that come April, he and I and the governor are going to work hard on a compromise in dealing with the budget, and in getting the votes,” he said.
The governor’s office had little to say about Miller’s remarks and only repeated its established position.
“Slots are one of the main sources of money for fiscal year ’04, and it’s a source that will continue to grow,” said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. “Taxes are not.”
For now, it’s up to Miller to garner votes in the Senate, a daunting task given the stalwart positions he says are being made in the press.
“We’re asking you to be flexible and listen to all sides before making up your mind. If people take firm positions now, I see a stalemate.”