WITH THE DEADLINE for a budget fast closing in, the fiscal bargaining in Annapolis has finally begun. Though Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) are nowhere near in sync, at least each is putting a set of options on the table. The governor -- whose revised slot machine math threw his earlier budget proposal out of balance by $230 million -- has now changed his tune on taxes, indicating a willingness to raise state property and corporate taxes and fees. These should be in any mix, along with spending cuts; Mr. Ehrlich has also proposed taking $106 million from the state's rainy day fund. The governor's still-dubious proposal for slots revenue, in contrast, offers no solution to the immediate budget problem. In fact, it ought to reinforce a growing sentiment among legislators that consideration of slots should be put off until next year, when more thoughtful proposals, based on better research, could be considered.
Mr. Ehrlich estimates that his latest slots proposal would bring in $165 million, a far cry from the $395 million he originally touted before almost doubling the racetrack owners' share and slashing the share for education. The total hole that the legislature is working to fill in a $22.8 billion budget is $410 million with the governor's slots plan, or $575 million without it. But even the $165 million is suspect; the governor is counting on $120 million in licensing fees and assuming that enough slots could be up and running toward the end of the budget year to bring in $45 million.
Mr. Busch and others who would hold off on slots this year are rightly drawing up cuts and revenue increases to balance the budget without slots. Critical in any cutting considered by the governor, the Senate or the House is the extent to which reductions may prove costlier than intended. For example, a proposal to impose a premium for health coverage under the Maryland Children's Health Program for families at 185 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level could result in children dropping off the rolls and the state losing $2 in federal money for each state dollar cut. Officials of the University System of Maryland, which gets less than 10 percent of the general fund appropriations, note that the system has been hit for more than 30 percent of the budget cuts made so far to address the deficit. A proposal to cut $37 million more would result in course reductions and difficulties retaining and recruiting top faculty members.
Mr. Miller, who is leading the charge for the legalization of at least some slot machines this year as part of any budget agreement, dismisses the governor's plan as irrelevant and ill-researched. He and other Senate leaders said last week that they were "starting from scratch" to craft their own slot machine proposal. But what's the rush? A slapdash "compromise" at this point would be reckless.