The gathering consensus

March 19, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. should acknowledge that his slot machine bill is fatally flawed and abandon it. This spavined legislative nag barely made it to the starting gate, stumbled coming out and may never get a view of the backstretch.

Embarrassments abound.

One house of the General Assembly works furiously to rewrite the governor's bill, while the other house persists in ignoring it.

Maryland's powerful governors usually get their way - and gambling gold is alluring - yet the outlook for Mr. Ehrlich's centerpiece legislation is dim. Even if slots were advisable - and they aren't - this bill needs the kind of overhaul that can't be done well under a deadline.

As it stands, the measure is a shocking giveaway to the track owners. A legislative analyst told the Senate over the weekend that the owners would be getting far more of the profit than is warranted.

Were it not for the track interests, their campaign contributions and the state's huge budget deficit, the bill might have died weeks ago.

The Senate began its top-to-bottom rewrite with orders to remove a provision under which the track owners would pay one-time licensing fees for the enriching privilege of setting up slots on their property. The senators may also try to scratch the bill's call for suspension of local zoning authority, a power grab called crucial to getting the slots emporia up and running quickly. What a precedent that would be.

Meanwhile, in the House of Delegates, Speaker Michael E. Busch continues to push for a package of painless mini-tax increases and further budget cuts that belatedly have won the approval of Governor Ehrlich. Those taxes and the $100 million in new reductions will balance the budget without slots.

It's a reasonable approach. But yesterday, the Senate began to consider other ways to keep the slots issue in play - even if slots revenue were not needed to balance the budget.

Under one proposal, the tracks would be asked to pay a token application fee of $5 million, hoping that would cement slots into law via the budget. That maneuver, if it prevailed, would be a distasteful side-door approach to bringing slot machine gambling to Maryland.

Whatever the Senate may try, the slots initiative is Mr. Ehrlich's. His own bill seems on the verge of eclipse in a flurry of late-session maneuvering. He and the Assembly could avoid a calamity by leaving this matter for next year.

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