Fuzzy math

February 27, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s floundering slot machine proposal is beginning to look like the opposite of gold at the end of the rainbow: Though he promises bales of new money, Baltimore would first have to spend $65 million for transportation improvements around Pimlico Race Course, one of four proposed slots venues. And the city would have to budget another $9.3 million annually to cover other costs.

This is just the latest, most concrete proof of the Ehrlich proposal's fundamental problem: It doesn't add up in the long or the short run. The bill's promised 3 percent share of the take for local government appears woefully inadequate, a conclusion backed by a city study of Baltimore's slots-related costs.

The city's needs, while critical, are but one of the deficiencies of the governor's bill.

Though the Ehrlich administration expects a yearly take of $1 billion or more when slots are fully in place, the money almost certainly won't be available in time to help balance this year's budget - and maybe not next year's. Even then, income from slots could fall well below the governor's projections. The state's respected team of fiscal analysts are telling state legislators: Don't count on a nickel this year.

Mr. Ehrlich apparently sees how much trouble his centerpiece proposal faces. He's frantically rewriting his bill on the fly, attempting to placate various critics, including the racing industry, which - surprise! - says it's not getting enough of the take.

Then on Tuesday, the governor and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele stood before a House of Delegates committee - with no bill to push. Still working on it, the governor said.

With his legislation in meltdown, the governor accused House Speaker Michael E. Busch of "playing the race card" to defeat the bill. In a lame attempt to prove his point, he observed that Mr. Busch had spoken about slots to a group of black Baltimore ministers - who had invited him to speak. The speaker called the governor's remarks "hurtful." Worse, they were a shameful lapse of judgment.

Meanwhile, important state programs are falling under a frenzy of budget slashing. Prudent thinkers in the General Assembly are beginning to work on a budget that assumes no slots revenue for at least a year. They would balance next year's budget with tax-loophole-closing legislation and further program cuts amounting to about $450 million. Tough but doable, they say.

The 2003 legislative session is more than half over. Under its self-imposed schedule, the House must pass a budget bill by March 17. It must know soon how much cutting or revenue-raising it needs. Legislation to deal with the loopholes would have to be passed.

So, time is not on the side of slots - or of wise governing. Legislation of this importance needs at least a year's consideration to be understood and perfected.

The best course would be to balance this year's budget as painlessly as possible, putting off consideration of slots for at least a year - forever would be better. At the very least, the Ehrlich administration would then have time to produce a bill worthy of the Assembly's consideration. So far, it hasn't come close.

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