State's new heavyweights square off over slots

February 02, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

WHEN CANDIDATE Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. swept through Western Maryland in November, his coattails toppled an old friend from the House of Delegates.

The Ehrlich win helped to unseat House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a likely Ehrlich ally on the difficult issue of slot machine gambling at the racetracks. One of the four slots emporiums the governor wants would be in Mr. Taylor's home county.

Coattails changed that dynamic - doubly.

Mr. Taylor's departure led to the emergence of a committed slots opponent, Del. Michael E. Busch, a veteran legislator from Anne Arundel County. Mr. Busch is now House Speaker Busch, having been elected to replace Mr. Taylor.

The new leader says depending on slots represents an abrupt turn in state fiscal policy and deserves at least a year of study.

Governor Ehrlich disagrees. He desperately needs slots legislation and $350 million in slot machine licensing fees.

Without that money, Maryland government will have to contemplate painful budget cuts or increased taxes. Mr. Ehrlich has rejected any new taxes. Speaker Busch wants everything, taxes included, on the table.

So now we have the new governor vs. the new speaker: the Democrat Busch vs. the Republican Ehrlich. It's the first major battle between representatives of a generation of new Maryland leaders. The fiscal health of the state, its culture and character may be stake.

The shootout has some symmetry.

These two started together in the General Assembly 16 years ago. They were colleagues, reveling in a heady collegiality, which included great pride in vigorous, independent debate. Partisan considerations were disdained by this cohort of ambitious legislators - in practice as well as in boast. Not that party affiliation didn't provide an element of creative tension and competition, but contrary to the cynical view, setting personal interests aside was part of an ethic that put the public interest first.

At this point in their careers, the governor and the speaker have much in common. Both have succeeded exceedingly well. Both are battlers and brainy risk-takers.

Mike Busch follows in a line of thoughtful speakers, tough-minded and capable of mastering complex subjects. His assertive presence guarantees vigorous, informed and passionate debate.

He has become the prime legislative questioner on slots, charging that the governor's proposal for 10,500 one-armed bandits isn't well thought-out.

Mr. Ehrlich says he wants time to study other aspects of government before making radical decisions, so Mr. Busch asks why wouldn't he be equally deliberate about slots? Doesn't that initiative have the potential to change the character of the state? Are we negotiating under the deficit gun, allowing the $1.8 billion budget deficit to suck us into a bad bargain?

Cynics notwithstanding, Mr. Busch follows another long tradition in the Assembly: The best legislators will "take the hard vote." They will lead in a politically dangerous cause as a matter of personal honor, voting against the teachers or the chamber of commerce or the presiding officer if they think they're doing the right thing for the state.

Last year, Mr. Busch helped create a legislative atmosphere in which the proposal to convert CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield into a for-profit insurer was slowed, if not killed, by a searching debate. If the CareFirst deal goes through now, the company probably will command a much higher price. The benefits to Maryland could increase by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I'm trying to create a debate this year so we don't make a mistake. Imagine how we'd feel if we had rushed into the CareFirst deal," Mr. Busch says.

"We haven't explored every possible approach. We're giving millionaires a monopoly. If I tried this they'd put me in jail. These [racing] people haven't done anything to grow their sport. Why should we underwrite them?" he asks.

Mr. Ehrlich's message is equally clear. Marylanders don't want more taxes - and they don't want deep cuts in core government services.

So it's the governor's bill vs. the speaker's questions. It could be a debate even cynics will love.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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