ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers moved one step closer to fixing the state budget Friday as the Senate advanced a limited proposal to legalize slot machines and the House of Delegates passed a balanced budget.
The House budget deepens spending cuts, closes some corporate tax loopholes and raises property taxes for fiscal year 2004. Controversial revenue from slots machines, a cornerstone of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s budget proposal, was not in the legislation.
“This House has done the heavy lifting,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery. “This budget allows every delegate to leave on April 7,” the scheduled end of the General Assembly’s 90-day session.
House Republicans criticized the bill for using taxes to make up for missing slots revenue.
“This budget failed miserably,” said House Minority Whip Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot. “That virtue of fiscal responsibility was eliminated when we took out (slots revenue).”
Ehrlich wrote $230 million in revenue from slot machines into his proposal to fill a $2 billion hole in the state’s $22.8 billion budget.
The budget now moves to the Senate where it is likely to undergo a serious rewrite at the behest of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
Miller supports balancing the budget on revenue from legalized slot machines across Maryland while House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has ardently opposed slots.
Some senators believe it is the House that will lose this budget battle.
“It’s going to clash,” said Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles. “The president is going to tie the budget to slots. He knows exactly what he’s going to do.”
Miller won a round of that battle Friday when the Senate moved a slots proposal to a final vote on Saturday.
That vote is likely to be a breeze for slots supporters, Middleton said, with the vote actually settled in advance.
“What you’ll have is the little dance that goes with it,” he said.
The bill that will likely pass today is a far cry from the governor’s slots proposal, however.
Miller assembled a Senate subcommittee to tinker with the governor’s bill last week, and senators further amended it today.
Sen. Larry Haines, R-Carroll, won a ban on gambling’s expansion in Maryland if slots are legalized.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, also secured an amendment to prohibit slot machines from excepting debit cards.
Middleton localized the debate, targeting the local impact aid Prince George’s County and Baltimore are set to receive for road improvements and the like.
“This has got to go out of this bill,” Middleton said. “What we’re saying to the tracks is we’re going to do all the work.”
Middleton, whose amendment failed 18-29, said he wasn’t surprised by any of the amendment votes.
“This was all worked out” before the session, he said.
Other failed attempts were made to saddle track owners with the $27 million price tag for the machines and force tracks to solicit bids for the machines.
“The indication is that in all probability we’ll get a slots bill,” said Budget and Taxation Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s. “It’s still going to be close.”
Although the slots proposal will likely pass the Senate Saturday, the budget process, is not done, Miller said. “We’re a long way from home,” he said. But “wise, cool heads will prevail.” – 30 – CNS-3-21-03