Ehrlich's slots push beginning to look like a salvage mission

Continued missteps create cloud of doubt over racetrack proposal

March 01, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Days after his victory in November, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proclaimed that the time had come for slot machines at Maryland's racetracks. Even his opponent in the gubernatorial election, a foe of expanded gambling, predicted that slots "will go right through."

But after repeated stumbles, Ehrlich is being forced to wage a feverish effort to salvage his slot machine proposal -- and both supporters and opponents say it is in more doubt than anyone would have predicted 50 days ago at the start of the legislative session.

In a rare move, the governor testified on his own behalf before the House and Senate committees that will vote on the gambling plan -- a plan that is both a foundation for Ehrlich's budget and an early test of his capabilities as a chief executive.

Annapolis veterans were startled at how little he had to say: The numbers that form the core of the bill, determining how to divide up the proceeds from slots, are still unavailable.

Ehrlich's thin testimony added to the strategic questions that have haunted the proposal from the outset.

Details of the plan dribbled out for weeks before the formal announcement, letting opposition mount. Ehrlich aides drafted the bill in a vacuum, choosing not to bring in industry groups at early stages. The governor didn't attend the news conference when the bill was unveiled, relinquishing to underlings the free media opportunity that his bully pulpit commands.

When he stepped before the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, he wound up accusing House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots opponent, of "playing the race card" by appealing to black ministers. The remark is still reverberating.

Critics are cutting the new governor little slack, saying Ehrlich and the staff he is relying on to advance legislative proposals have come across as ill-prepared, bordering on bungling.

"Their performance is so monumentally bad, it's hard to know precisely how to say it," said Del. Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, the House majority leader. "It kind of reminds you of a guy who stayed up drinking all night, and shows up for the final exam without looking at the notes he borrowed, and says, `Give me an A.'"

So as the session passed its halfway mark this week -- and the House of Delegates races toward a deadline that's just three weeks away to pass its own version of the budget -- the governor's slots bill is teetering, Republicans and Democrats agree.

"People who have been with him, it's hard to stay on the team," said Donald E. Murphy, a former delegate and the chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party.

Ehrlich insists that the slots bill will win approval in the House and the Senate and that negotiations toward a final product will be completed within "hours."

"We're going to pull out all the stops," said Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary. "It's going to pass the Senate, and it's going to pass the House."

While some observers say the governor deserves a break because he has been in office less than two months, many are still scratching their heads at his performance before the Assembly.

"I don't know that they don't have their act together, but they don't have their numbers together," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"It's hard to be frustrated with a staff that's very new to the State House. They've never been on the second floor. They've never been in leadership. They have no bench strength. So it's hard to criticize."

Miller said he strongly urged Ehrlich to testify this week, even though he realized that the governor would face severe criticism by appearing without a revised version of his plan.

"It's his bill, his idea. He has to appear," Miller said. "He and the staff knew it would not be a good week for him, but he did so willingly. So I have no complaints."

This week's events triggered a refrain that is growing common inside the State House: Ehrlich has yet to make the full transition from a congressman and candidate to a chief executive.

"Persuading voters and persuading legislators are two different things," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"You have to have a bit of empathy for him. He had so much on his plate when he came in. He had to get the budget out even before he had his staff together.

"But that's all the more reason to be on your `A' game from the start. He opened that window, and people were waiting for the first smell of blood in the water," Schaller said.

Ehrlich campaigned heavily as a proponent of slots and has said repeatedly that his victory was a public demand for more gambling, and against higher taxes.

When he and his staff sat down to craft the bill, they sought little input from racing groups and key lawmakers. That omission, many said, has created problems.

Still, their plan dribbled out, and details were battered by criticism.

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