Thin veneer of rationalization covers lottery

THE POLITICAL GAME

October 20, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

The lottery serves now as the biggest and most precariously balanced fig leaf in Maryland political life.

What it tries to cover is the unwillingness of politicians to pay for government in a straightforward way. What it shows is politicians at work, trying to have it both ways. They swear they dislike gambling. But not as much as they despise taxes or cutting government programs.

Now, though, declining lottery revenue could make this contradictory position even more difficult to defend.

Clever politicians should have known it would come to this. They were told.

William S. Ratchford II, who prognosticates reliably on revenue matters for the General Assembly, warned that keno would be a less-effective money maker than its advocates hoped. Worse still, it would cut into revenue from other lottery games.

The administration and the Assembly were undeterred. When they inaugurated keno last January, they cranked $50 million into revenue estimates for the first six months of this calendar year.

Never mind that Mr. Ratchford said the haul would be only $35 million.

His prediction actually was optimistic.

The return from keno was $29.4 million -- $21.6 million short of the $50 million target.

The Lottery Agency suggested that keno would have done better if the economy were doing better. The economy, of course, had been doing poorly when the state made its predictions.

The economy, as it turns out, was actually helping. Reduced gambling revenue is being offset partially by higher income tax receipts. That, too, Mr. Ratchford had predicted.

Critics of state-sponsored gambling will not be reassured by any of this. The pols can't be all that pleased, either.

Governor Schaefer now stars unhappily as the slightly crazed Kaptain Keno in a serial cartoon on this newspaper's editorial page. Last year, the New York Times columnist William Safire referred to him as "Gov. William Donald ('Bet While You Booze') Schaefer."

So, here we have the worst of political worlds: the heat is on, while the take is off.

But don't bet on change. If the past is prologue, new games could be coming.

"Keno," says Sen. Howard A. Denis, R-Montgomery, "puts us on the road to Reno."

Signing off for now

My turn as the author of this column began a little more than 12 months ago. I started by musing about Governor Schaefer and his choice for president in 1992: Would the lifelong Democrat actually endorse the Republican, George Bush, as some Schaefer watchers expected?

"No way" and "never," I wrote, quoting one of the governor's aides. "He doesn't need enemies in high places," I added.

A few weeks later, Mr. Schaefer climbed aboard Air Force One,flew to St. Louis and endorsed Mr. Bush.

There went my no-hitter.

Oh, well, we did anticipate that he might do something unorthodox. The column was designed, after all, to show a little of how the game is played, what motivates the players and how they think.

Many politicians actually do think, long and laboriously, about what they're doing, and not all of it is self-serving.

Take the governor. He knew his endorsement of Mr. Bush would bring scorn from fellow Democrats. It certainly did. Had his gamble paid off, though, his state would have been the beneficiary. His state would have had a grateful friend in the highest political place, the White House.

Was that all he had in mind?

Was he anxious to take a shot at Bill Clinton, whose Maryland campaign had snubbed him?

Maybe.

Probably.

Nevertheless, he was putting himself on the line. Politicians do that more than we give them credit for.

Perfection is beyond any us, of course. I stand on my record there.

Next Wednesday, this column becomes the province of my colleague, Robert Timberg. I look forward to reading his accounts of the political game.

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