ANNAPOLIS – With 12 days left in this year’s session, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, Wednesday demanded Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich forge a compromise between slot machines and taxes to fill the state’s $800 million budget hole.
The governor quickly responded with his own news conference and said House members should be talking to Democrats in the Senate, not him.
“Last time I checked, House Democrats are going to have a very difficult time with the Democrats in the Senate,” Ehrlich said. “I don’t believe a lot of senators are anxious to vote on a tax package.”
Last week, the House narrowly passed Busch’s $1 billion tax package by a 10-vote margin. But Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, have both staunchly opposed any increases in the sales or income tax.
During his afternoon press conference, Busch waved a copy of the state’s budget with a hole carved in it.
“There’s a hole in the budget that no one wants to address,” he said.
Charts displayed around the room showed an $839 million budget gap in fiscal year 2006 even with slots revenues.
Flanked by House leaders, Busch railed against Ehrlich’s threats to fund education by cutting health care and social services in next year’s budget if slots fail again.
The governor announced the possibility of more cuts Tuesday during impromptu testimony before the Ways and Means Committee hearing on his slots bill.
Ehrlich defended his slots package Wednesday as the solution to budget problems, and said there was no “hostage crisis.”
“If they kill slots, they kill slots,” Ehrlich said. “This is a spending problem.”
The slots bill before Ways and Means calls for 15,500 slot machines at three racetrack locations and three other sites elsewhere in the state. The administration has estimated slots will fund up to 97 percent of the remaining money needed to fund education reforms.
Miller agreed with Ehrlich’s assessment of the situation, and placed the blame for the budget gap on Busch.
“There’s a hole in the budget because the House didn’t pass slots last year,” Miller said. “The bill’s been sitting over there for a month . . . they haven’t done diddly. It’s time to do what the people want instead of what a few misguided people think.”
But Busch and other House Democrats have insisted that taxes are the fiscally responsible solution.
“We have put responsible revenue sources on the table, but (Ehrlich) hasn’t entertained it,” Busch said.
House Health and Government Operations Chairman John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery, reminded the governor and his fellow lawmakers the state’s constitution requires a balanced budget.
“We’re looking for a conversation (with the governor),” Hurson said. “The governor needs to sit down with us and tell us what he can sign.”
While the 2005 budget is balanced with a series of one-time revenue sources and without slots, most of the debate has centered on funding landmark education reforms in future years. The two major solutions under consideration are tax increases and slots.
After grilling the administration during slots hearings Tuesday, Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, said she would hold off on any slots decision until the governor makes it clear how slots and taxes could be combined to solve the budget gaps.
“Why should we subject the House to a vote if there’s no chance for compromise,” Hixson said.
Hixson has insisted slots have no chance of surviving her committee – which killed Ehrlich’s first bill last year – without including other revenue.
A statewide poll released Wednesday showed 54 percent of respondents favor legalizing slot machines in Maryland. And while the poll indicated an overwhelming 79 percent of participants would favor a referendum to decide the issue, Ehrlich and some lawmakers have called such an idea a cop-out.
Gonzales Marketing and Research Strategies conducted the phone poll March 19 to 24 among 825 registered voters. It carried a margin of error of 3.5 points, with a 95 percent confidence rating.
In the next 12 days, slots and taxes must run the gauntlet in both chambers of the General Assembly.
And Ehrlich did not express much optimism for the success of the House’s tax proposal, saying, “before any elements of a tax package receive consideration (from the governor’s office), they need to survive the Senate.”