Owens silent on slots issue, hedging bets

Taking sides could pose a political risk for her

`She has to ... stay in the middle'

Needs favor of Ehrlich, Busch

backs referendum

Anne Arundel

March 09, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Executive Jack B. Johnson of Prince George's County - home to Rosecroft Raceway - opposes Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan for allowing slot machines at tracks, saying his county needs more money to offset the costs.

Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore - home to Pimlico Race Course - has said he won't oppose slot machines in principle, but is pressing for millions of dollars to improve the infrastructure around the track.

And what about Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, whose county is home to Laurel Park, where slots also are planned? No one knows.

She won't say.

Alone among the local leaders whose jurisdictions would be most affected by the plan to put thousands of slots at the state's horse racing tracks, Owens is keeping her counsel.

It's a stance observers see as a cautious political calculation.

They note that Owens, a Democrat, must avoid offending both the freshman Republican governor and new Speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael E. Busch, who is a Democrat from her own county - and a staunch critic of slots.

"It's very important for her to have a good relationship with the governor, and it's even more important to have a good relationship with the Speaker of the House," said former legislator and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall.

"She needs both of them," said longtime Owens friend and campaign treasurer William F. Chaney. "She has to, truthfully, sort of stay in the middle."

Rather than expressing an opinion, Owens has said she wants the issue to be decided by voter referendum.

She maintained that viewpoint even after Ehrlich revised his plan last week to slightly increase the amount of money allotted to local jurisdictions, from 3.2 percent to 3.8 percent.

"The county executive is looking forward to studying the governor's new bill," Owens' spokeswoman Jody Hedeman Couser said last week.

It's unclear whether Owens has been active behind the scenes.

The Sun requested all slots-related correspondence between Owens, her chief of staff and her chief legislative aide and Ehrlich or Anne Arundel legislators. There isn't any, Couser said.

Neall said it's always important for a county executive to maintain good relations with the governor, but the relationship with Busch is unique. Busch is the first Speaker of the House from Anne Arundel since the 1800s.

The speaker "has the potential to benefit Anne Arundel County immensely," Neall said, "unless you have a rocky relationship with him."

Neall pointed to the projects former Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. brought back to Western Maryland. Those included Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort.

Ehrlich and Busch each will have a large impact on the county's budget.

If slots are passed, they will help shape how much Anne Arundel receives in state assistance.

If slots don't pass, counties will face additional cuts in state aid. Ehrlich and Busch would have a large say in determining which counties take the biggest hits.

To this point, Owens appears to have good ties with each. When he's not a legislator, Busch is one of Owens' employees, working in the county's Recreation and Parks Department.

Owens' relationship with Ehrlich apparently has started well, especially considering they are from opposing parties.

During last fall's campaign, Owens never endorsed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ehrlich's opponent. And Ehrlich asked Owens to speak in January at his inauguration ceremony.

Although Busch said Owens taking a stance for or against slots would not harm their relationship, he acknowledged that it could have bad political consequences.

"If you come out for it and there was a backlash from the community ... that's a downside," he said. And he added it might all be for naught, because the vote could go the opposite direction.

But that hasn't deterred O'Malley and Johnson - both Democrats.

Johnson believed that by speaking out he could effect change, said his chief of staff, Michael Herman. Johnson deemed the governor's initial plan "ridiculous."

He said through a spokeswoman that the governor's new plan, which was released Wednesday, would still not have enough money for his county.

Since the slots issue arose in Annapolis, O'Malley has repeatedly voiced his views.

He has said he would support slots at racetracks, but is concerned about alleviating the impact on the city.

"As the leader of the city, he has an obligation to speak on the potential effects on the city and its residents," said his spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.

There is no question that Owens' county also has a major stake in the issue.

As requested by the state, Anne Arundel County submitted an estimate that it would cost $6 million a year to support 3,000 slot machines at Laurel. That includes money for public safety services, increased bus service and road improvements.

Owens has not publicly discussed the need for that money.

"The danger," said Dan Nataf, director of Anne Arundel Community College's Center for the Study of Local Issues, "is waiting until it's too late, in the sense that you haven't made any claims for money.

"When the deal's cut, the squeaky wheel gets it, and you don't."

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