Leave Slots Out Of Special Session Talks

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Governor Martin O’Malley has officially summonsed legislators to Annapolis for a special session starting Oct. 29 to discuss and ultimately approve a reform package aimed at addressing an estimated $1.7 billion structural deficit.

The governor believes time is of the essence and his proposed budget plan needs the state’s attention immediately rather than next January. “Now it’s time to take action … The cost of waiting is too high. It’s time to pass a consensus budget plan, solve the problem and move our State forward,” he said this week.

The state’s financial health is of dire importance, but we disagree a two-week special session is enough time to get this sweeping budget plan approved. Let’s review the multi-pronged plan – it calls for lowering the income tax for the state’s poor and middle class; reducing property taxes; closing corporate loopholes; raising the corporate tax; sustaining the Thornton education law; increasing the tobacco tax by $1 per pack; increasing the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent; and bringing “limited” slots to certain locations.

Certain parts of this plan will most likely be no problem for a majority of state legislators. However, the issue of the one-arm bandits is still a pain in the neck for most legislators. The legislature is divided on this issue and has been for years. A fall 2008 referendum has been floated to decide the fate of slots. That’s unnecessary in our view because we see that as passing easily.

We believe the only way a special session will be successful is keeping slots out of the picture. That’s impossible with the way the governor’s reform plan has been pitched. The administration seems to have an all-or-nothing philosophy here and that’s never wise in government and politics.

Removing slots from this plan will do little to affect the next fiscal year’s budget. It has been estimated slots revenue would total about $27 million the first year and that’s not going to make or break the budget. The real money, those $500-plus million estimates being promised, would come in future years. Legislators could come up with the money credited to slots in other ways.

The governor acknowledged in the Executive Order calling for an “Extraordinary Session” the structural deficit has been a decade in the making. An abbreviated session with dozens of disgruntled elected officials is not the way to address an issue as cumbersome as this deficit. There are clearly officials – mostly Republicans – who will do all in their power to derail certain aspects of the governor’s plan. The sales tax is firmly in their crosshairs as well as slots. While we expect the sales tax increase to sail through, the slots issue is another matter altogether.

The governor would be wise to acquiesce during the session and understand he will not get his entire package. The unknowns surrounding slots is a major obstacle and all Marylanders would be better served if it was removed from any immediate deficit plan and evaluated extensively during the 90-day General Assembly session starting in January. Keeping slots off the table during this session will allow the focus to be on other proposed revenue generators. Otherwise, slots will dominate the special session and it shouldn’t because it’s not the state’s financial savior. All sides agree on that.

Even the most ardent of slots supporters understand they will not produce the immediate windfall needed to help balance the state’s next budget. Keeping them out of any intermediate plan discussed later this month is the logical move. If the legislators can get on the same page in next year’s session and achieve a compromise over slots, that revenue can always be put back in the mix. It needs to be left out of talks in the special session.

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