ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s top lawmakers continued a frenzied series of meetings Tuesday looking for a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, over whether taxes or slot machines should plug the state’s $830 million budget gap.
After missing a constitutional deadline Monday to pass a balanced budget, House leadership and the governor’s office remained far apart, although both sides said dialogue would continue until the session’s scheduled adjournment in six days.
Adding to the gridlock, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, has halted work on the budget until some compromise is reached over slots and taxes.
An afternoon powwow among House leadership and administration officials produced little movement.
House Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, who presented the governor with a “menu” of alternative tax options earlier in the session, said her committee will continue to stall the slots bill until Ehrlich clearly lays out an acceptable compromise.
“We’ve floated the idea of a half-cent sales tax increase, and there’s talk of a titling and transfer tax, but the House’s position is still no taxes, no slots,” Hixson said.
Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula said the state was fortunate to have a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but said the following years remained the chief concern.
“We’re willing to work with the Legislature to determine revenue options,” DiPaula said. “But the governor’s slots proposal remains the single largest non-tax revenue source available to us.”
DiPaula said Ehrlich remained open to discussing additional revenue options that did not increase sales or income taxes.
Busch, whose $1 billion tax package raised the ire of the fiercely anti-tax administration, said he was pleased to see all sides acknowledge the budget shortfall and said all options were on the table.
“We’re willing to take a look at whatever the governor or the president of the Senate offers,” Busch said. “We’re not saying we have the total answer.”
Ehrlich has championed slots as the only viable alternative to tax increases to raise the necessary funds to close the state’s budget gap and fully fund landmark education reforms.
Opponents have been quick to point out slots revenues would not materialize for at least two years.
Having shepherded Ehrlich’s slots proposal through the Senate the last two years in a row, Miller put the onus on the governor to take the lead and finish the job this year.
“What we want is progress. I’ve talked to the governor about other revenue options. But we want something that both sides can shake hands on and declare victory,” Miller said. “It’s the governor’s job to get (a slots bill) passed the House.”