Old Problems in a New Year

Old Problems in a New Year

General Assembly convenes on Jan. 14.

This time around, they’ve got some experience.

Last year, the General Assembly, about one-third of whom were new members, faced a big hole in the budget and debated the merits of revenue from slot machines.

This time around, there is still a big hole in the budget, $700 million in a budget of about $23 billion, and slot machines still loom as a dominant issue.

Maryland’s Governor will present the legislature with a budget, and the general assembly cannot add anything to it or transfer funds; they can only cut.

“The negotiating on what this [slot machine] legislation is going to look like continues,” said Del. Jean Cryor (R-15). Cryor is the senior Republican in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Last year a slots bill was introduced, then withdrawn, then re-introduced. It passed in the Senate, but didn’t make it through the House.

One of the first drafts of this year’s slot proposal surprised Cryor. “I was shocked to know that the revenue from slots would not be going to education, they would be going to the general fund,” Cryor said.

She thinks that the bill will change before it is introduced in the legislature. “If this money doesn’t go to education, I’m out the door,” Cryor said.

Del. Brian Feldman (D-15) has a similar outlook. While he does not like the idea of slot machines, he might vote for them if the bill was right. “A clear majority of that money must be earmarked for Thornton [a education bill which mandates certain funding levels],” Feldman said.

He also points out that any money generated from slot machines would not really be coming in for two years, and would do nothing to close this year’s budget hole.

Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) was in favor of slots last year, “reluctantly” voting for the slots proposal. He continues to be open to the idea. “I’m just trying to be pragmatic,” he said. “We have to balance the budget.”

Others are not so amenable.

Neither Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-16) nor Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16) want them.

After the failure of the bill last year, “the governor has done nothing in the interim to lay the foundation to fix anything,” said Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16). “They have still failed to sell me on slots.”

WITHOUT THE MONEY from slots, legislators are looking for other possible ways to increase revenue. The governor has ruled out an increase on the income or sales tax, Cryor said.

One possible alternative could be a five- or 10-cent increase per gallon on the gas tax. The current rate is 23.5 cents per gallon.

Considering what he says is a need, Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16) favors going as high as 10 cents. “That gets us $300 million a year,” he said.

Bronrott and others pointed out that last year, the governor took $300 million from the transportation trust fund, and that money must be restored. “We have to have a plan for getting that money back,” said Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-15). Dumais is willing to vote for an increase of up to 10 cents.

“I regard a gas tax as a user fee,” said Cryor, who favors a five cent increase.

Frosh would only support an increase in the gas tax if a portion of the funds generated would go to transit.

Feldman agrees, noting that the gas tax has not gone up in Maryland since 1992, he thinks his constituents would support an increase if it will lead to relief from traffic congestion. “Transportation funding is something people in our county intuitively believe we need,” he said.

Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-16) is waiting to see the whole budget package before she makes a decision. “The most important thing is to make sure that Montgomery County is not short-changed,” she said.

ALL OF THE LEGISLATORS want to get the funding for school construction which the county schools system is asking for — almost $60 million. “This is a delegation priority,” Bronrott said.

“I think if we look at our tax system, we can do it,” said Del. Susan Lee (D-16).

While all of the legislators want to get the funding, most are not optimistic. The governor will only be including $100 million for school construction in this year’s budget statewide, Garagiola said.

That money will have to be distributed across Maryland’s 23 counties. “We’re going to fight for as much of that as we can,” Goldwater said.

And in a lean budget year, with a General Assembly which is not permitted to add money to the governor’s budget, getting the money that Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry Weast is asking for is not very likely. “There’s no way that kind of request can be met,” Cryor said. “What I don’t know is what Dr. Weast could get by with.”

STATE LEGISLATORS may also have the opportunity to discuss an issue which has been hotly contested in Montgomery County — a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.

“One day we’re going to look back and say, ‘how did we ever put up with smoking,’” said Bronrott, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I see it almost like a civil rights issue,” Lee said. “Everybody has a right to have a clean and healthy area to live and work.”

Dumais has yet to decide on the issue, and Feldman urges caution, noting the amount of litigation the ban has created for Montgomery County.

Cryor, being politically pragmatic, has not taken a position on the ban. “It won’t get out of committee.”