Republicans ridded themselves of a much-needed ally for slots

March 11, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE GODS of politics, with their puckish sense of humor, take away Casper R. Taylor and deliver Michael E. Busch into the life of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Thus does the fate of slot machines in Maryland take its ironic turn. Thus Governor Ehrlich must wonder: Why, exactly, did Republicans want to knock Taylor out of office last fall?

Taylor, the former House speaker, was one of slot machines' great champions. Busch, the new House speaker, has become its most vocal opponent. For the past three years, Taylor pitched slots as an economic shot in the arm for a state with serious money problems. Busch wants to meet those problems with tax increases and budget cuts, and shove the governor's gambling centerpiece out the door.

Many in Annapolis will tell you: If Cas Taylor's still running the House, the odds on slot machines improve drastically. But Taylor went down to stunning defeat in November, in a campaign marked by Republicans slamming him on gun control claims that weren't vaguely true.

Thus, the GOP gained a seat in the House. But they also got a new House speaker -- the Democrat Busch -- who is tormenting them on the very heart of Ehrlich's economic package.

"Yeah, I'm sitting here reading about Busch right now," Taylor was saying yesterday morning from Western Maryland. It was a newspaper article about Busch standing in the way of slots. Taylor was getting ready for a trip to Annapolis, where Ehrlich has nominated him for a seat on the Maryland Health Care Commission. The two men are friendly, despite political differences. One strong bond is slot machines.

"The governor was out here a few weeks ago," Taylor said, "and I offered him a few pieces of advice on slots. One, you have to bring a tax increase into the package. Slots money isn't going to solve the [budget] problem by itself. It can't. It's not big enough.

"But it's vitally important to funding the Thornton [education] formula. When we passed Thornton last year, we had editorials out of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal applauding us for moving public education in America a major step forward. And here we are, about to destroy it."

Two weeks ago, Ehrlich warned that if slot machine legislation fails, there might be no money for the landmark school aid formula designed to help poorer jurisdictions. "There is no way Thornton gets funded without incredibly draconian cuts," Ehrlich told a General Assembly committee.

Taylor disagrees.

"To say that slot machine money alone gets the job done is just false," he said. "I can't convince him of this at this point. But in the next couple of weeks, he's got to wake up. He's got to throw partisan rhetoric away. We've got to have a sales tax increase. We've got the lowest sales tax rate in the mid-Atlantic region. Everybody around us is 6 or 7 percent, and we're at 5.

"The latest annual comparison of cost of government has us 31st out of 50 states. This partisan rhetoric of the election campaign has to disappear when you start dealing with true realities. Thirty states are spending more money on government, per capita, than we are. So don't keep telling us that we overspend and that Democratic overspending is the reason for the deficit. ... It's a national recession."

Linking a sales tax increase to slots legislation would be political compromise. But Ehrlich has stood firmly against tax increases.

"It goes back to campaign rhetoric," Taylor said. "It's a classic example of why you should never make campaign promises. You have to throw it out and face up to governing. Look, this is happening all over the country. I was out in Ohio, out in Republican territory. They have a $5 billion deficit. They're raising taxes. In Texas, George Bush's state, they've got a $10 billion deficit. So they're raising taxes there. We need slots, but slots alone won't do it."

Taylor has championed slots as a statewide shot in the arm -- and, in particular, help for Western Maryland, which Maryland drivers pass through each day headed for nearby West Virginia slots.

"In this very small county," Taylor said of Allegany, "slots would mean 500 new, permanent jobs, and $15 [million] to $18 million extra payroll a year."

Taylor suffered a stunning defeat at the polls last fall, in a campaign in which Republicans exploited anxieties over gun control.

"There are political bomb-throwers," Taylor said. "They distorted the gun control issue unmercifully. Governor [Parris] Glendening had his gun safety bill, which I backed, and the Republicans had poor innocent people up here believing I was trying to confiscate their guns."

So they gained a new House seat in Western Maryland. But they lost a House speaker who might have made life a lot easier for Governor Ehrlich as he struggles to save the heart of his economic package.

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