Busch is slots foe, ready to do battle

House speaker attacks principle, specifics of Ehrlich gambling plan

January 19, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to know what it's like to tangle with a fired-up Michael E. Busch, he need only ask William L. Jews.

Jews, chief executive of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, spent most of last year's legislative session being assailed by Busch - then chairman of a House committee - over the health insurer's plan to be acquired by an out-of-state firm.

By the time the 90-day session ended, Jews' unpopularity in Annapolis rivaled that of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

And CareFirst had some steep roadblocks placed in the way of its merger - some of them created by Busch.

Now Busch is speaker of the House, and the issue in his sights is slot-machine gambling - which Ehrlich wants to tap for money to close the state's $1.3 billion budget shortfall forecast for the coming fiscal year.

Busch is opposed, and he's using much the same approach he employed last year to criticize the CareFirst deal.

Only this year, he has a bigger pulpit from which to conduct what is expected to be a session-long struggle.

"I wouldn't underestimate the power of a determined speaker," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a leading supporter of slots.

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader, said Busch's actions show that the new speaker is willing to take risks by standing up to a popular new governor.

"This is very high stakes. This is going to define the next four years in a lot of ways," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Busch, 56, said the parallel between the proposed CareFirst acquisition and the Ehrlich slots plan is clear: "unjust enrichment." Last year, his target was CareFirst executives; this year, it's the racetrack owners who stand to profit from slots.

A spokesman for CareFirst said neither he nor Jews would comment about Busch.

As he did with CareFirst last year, Busch is taking every opportunity he can to "educate" the news media, fellow legislators and the public on the downside of slots and the big money behind the pro-gambling effort.

Reaching out

He is reaching out to advocacy groups and business lobbies to create grass-roots pressure against an expansion of gambling.

And he's seeking to focus public attention on the gambling industry's thirst for money - much as he did with the $39.4 million bonus the CareFirst board promised Jews upon completion of the deal.

"Not to have a fair and full debate on the issue of slot machines would be, at least in my opinion, unfair to the citizens we represent," Busch said in an Inauguration Day interview. "People ought to just slow down and take a deep breath and take a look at all the different options that are available."

That, the Annapolis Democrat says, includes increases in sales and income taxes - which Ehrlich has ruled out.

Busch said he does not share the opinion expressed by Ehrlich that the November election was a referendum on slots.

"I don't think the public's been thoroughly engaged in this debate. I think it'll happen in the next 30 to 60 days," he said.

The speaker's emergence as a critic of slots, which puts him at odds with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, has damaged the aura of inevitability about slots that emerged after Ehrlich's election victory.

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, who heads the Interdenominational Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity, said Busch's opposition to slots has encouraged him to take up the fight.

"After the gubernatorial election, I had just about conceded that casino gambling would become a reality in the state, given the fact that Robert Ehrlich said he was in support of slots," Perkins said. "However, I became really enthused and encouraged when I learned that Michael Busch, the new speaker, is against slots."

90-day time limit

Busch's strategy is a high-stakes gamble that he and other opponents can organize and convince Marylanders that slots are a worse alternative than tax increases - an argument that needs to be made in 90 days.

Even if he can't do that, Busch is working to protect his fellow Democrats from the political fallout of agreeing to slots by putting pressure on the Assembly's Republicans to deliver unanimous support for a bill before he will let it move.

Del. John Adams Hurson, chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee, said it's no idle threat.

"The speaker simply tells his chairman the bill is not to come out of committee - real simple," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

When asked about Busch's opposition, Ehrlich appeared nonchalant. "The speaker can go out there and do his thing and it's a free country," he said. "I'm sure the legislatures in Delaware and West Virginia hope he's successful."

Miller bristled at Busch's suggestion that lawmakers need to learn more about the impact of slots. "Education is certainly good, but those of us who have grown up with slot machines - like those of us in Southern Maryland - are already educated on slot machines," the Senate president said.

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