THE END of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s raggedy shakedown cruise with the legislature leaves the heaviest financial lifting until next year. Having put off all substantive decisions on how to address the long-range deficit problems facing the state, the governor should begin now to work with House and Senate leaders on proposals to deal with the $700 million budget shortfall they will confront when the lawmakers return next January. This year, the new governor rode in with a campaign proposal in favor of legalizing slot machine gambling, but he failed to produce anything resembling a credible plan. Next year, he owes the state a more serious program to balance the budget: revenue-raising propositions that may be needed, budget cuts that have been thought out and, if he insists on sticking with gambling (we hope he won't), a lucid proposal on how much revenue can be realistically expected and how it would be allocated.
Judging from his adjournment rhetoric, Mr. Ehrlich is nowhere near such thinking at this point. On alternate days he is still smarting over the slots debacle and raising the possibility of a special session of the legislature this summer to peddle yet another gambling scheme to raise money for the next shortfall. Though the pro-gambling Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., says he's game for a summertime stab at it, House Speaker Michael E. Busch isn't buying in -- and shouldn't. The overwhelming House support for a thorough study of the impact of slots and casino operations ought not be dismissed in another rush to bad judgment.
Besides, Mr. Ehrlich has some more immediate business to take care of. Apparently because he is still sore about his defeat on slots, he has vowed to veto a $135 million revenue package passed by the legislature to balance the budget for the year beginning July 1. Never mind that the bill contains revenue-raising steps that he himself proposed. A veto would require budget cuts that would likely hurt education and the poor, though the governor has yet to say what specifically he would cut. The governor has 30 days after receiving the bill to veto it; he may be thinking about using the threat of a veto to try, one more time, to persuade the legislature to approve gambling. This would be as much of a mistake in two weeks or four weeks as it would have been a week ago. If there are to be spending cuts, the governor has the option of calling the legislators back into special session and asking them to draw up a plan or leaving the hatchet work to the Board of Public Works, on which the governor sits as one of three members. Which again leads to the question: If he won't accept these reasonable revenue options, what will he cut?