Slots demise laid to missteps

Bill: The governor's signature initiative unraveled at the end because of an inexperienced staff and mistakes in judgment, many observers say.

April 03, 2003|By David Nitkin and Michael Dresser | David Nitkin and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office 11 weeks ago buoyed by what he called a mandate for slot machines at racetracks. Voters endorsed his brand of fiscal conservatism that included expanded gambling, he said, when they chose him over former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Today, that mandate lies crumpled at the governor's feet, tossed there by the House of Delegates. A vote yesterday in the House Ways and Means Committee all but kills Ehrlich's slots plan for the year.

While some hold out hope for a revival through procedural tricks or negotiations, Ehrlich aides concede the stinging loss. "This is over for us," said Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula.

That a popular governor failed to push a signature initiative through the General Assembly reflects a series of missteps, an inexperienced staff and an inability to overcome questions that the proposal would enrich racing interests at the expense of others, many observers say.

But it also speaks to the emergent strength of a new speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County, whose steadfast opposition to the governor's plan has proved to be an insurmountable obstacle.

"You have the speaker and some other important delegates very much against this from the beginning," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes. "Apparently the drafting of the bill was done very poorly in the first instance. Then you have the news articles with everybody's fingers in the pot.

"All these things combined to kill it," Hughes said. "It all shows that the final say is in the legislature. A governor has to learn that."

Even though he campaigned as a proponent of legalizing slots at racetracks to help balance the state's budget, Ehrlich took office without a concrete plan. As Maryland's first Republican governor in 36 years, he and his aides were consumed with the details of an inauguration and transition. There were Cabinet secretaries to appoint, a budget to prepare. The slots bill was on the back burner.

"Clearly the way the administration has handled it, and the politics of it, appeared weak," said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It appeared to me that they came in late with a proposal that wasn't fully developed. And they had to go through two more iterations. And most people looked at that and said, `What's going on?' It suggests a degree of inexperience."

The first version -- written with scant input from track owners and other industry representatives to avoid the appearance of conflict -- devoted 64 percent of profits to public schools. Racing representatives said they wouldn't make enough money, especially because existing tracks were to be charged $100 million each in up-front licensing fees.

So the governor was forced to rewrite the plan. He released revisions at an unusual 9 p.m. news conference where he deliberately camouflaged the figures to make it appear as if schools were still receiving the lion's share of profits. They weren't. Track owners would take in a slightly higher share.

All this fueled the questions of opponents, led by Busch -- a close friend of the governor who in recent days has appeared visibly pained that he would be plunging the lethal injection into Ehrlich's bill.

"Everybody kept saying that the speaker was going to cave, and he didn't," said Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County. "Ehrlich ran into an immovable force. I think it's the strength of Busch rather than anything the governor did or didn't do."

Some say that Busch should not be thwarting the will of a governor elected statewide.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former governor known for his impatience with the Assembly, lashed out at Busch yesterday, calling for the speaker to allow the full House to vote on the slots bill to avoid the risk of deep budget cuts.

"If I don't speak out, I would be remiss," Schaefer said. "Is this a Democratic system that we have? Four hundred to $500 million in programs will be lost. Don't stop the Democratic process from happening."

Ehrlich has done little to help his cause, most agree. During a House hearing in February on the administration's bill, he accused Busch of playing racial politics by speaking in black churches against slots. Busch angrily denied the allegations.

"It started unraveling right then," said Del. Bennett Bozman, a Worcester County Democrat.

Del. Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, a leading opponent of slots, said the legislation was also hampered by the perception that it would enrich racetrack owners -- particularly Joseph A. De Francis, the chief executive of Pimlico and Laurel.

"A guy contributes half a million dollars in campaign contributions and then gets a bill passed turning him into a billionaire?" Barve asked. "Can you imagine the Republican response if we had tried to do that under Parris Glendening?"

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