Does the governor know when to fold 'em?

April 06, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

HE'S ACTING like a loser, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. may have won the slots battle.

The man who killed slots this year, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, now says: Wait until next year. That's a quantum leap beyond no slots, no way.

But Mr. Ehrlich demands total victory now and threatens deep cuts in a budget already needing a transfusion.

It's reckless and risky. If the governor won't agree to a budget-balancing set of tax increases, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly may help him create a train wreck.

Much of this is final-hours bluffing. The governor pushes the Assembly toward a "doomsday" solution, hoping it might respond by resuscitating the slots bill. The Assembly says, "Make my day." It's the blame game: Democrats think people care about government. Mr. Ehrlich thinks many of them don't.

What he's threatening to do is reminiscent of the decision several years ago by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (emphasis on former) to allow the government to close its doors. Big mistake. It cost Mr. Gingrich his career. A series of vetoes by Mr. Ehrlich, forcing deeper cuts in worthy programs or prolonging the legislative session, flow from the same vein.

Mr. Ehrlich says he never agreed to any taxes unless they were linked to approval of slot machines. He and his staff apparently assumed everyone bought this linkage. It's a transparent rewrite of history: Mr. Busch didn't say he'd trade slots for mini-taxes.

Yet the speaker is showing the governor a path to victory.

Mr. Busch has made it clear he's not unalterably opposed to slots. He wants a more open and competitive process and a bill that does not enrich track owners. He wants a summer to study the proposal - though he weakens his position by suggesting he would accept a flawed and unstudied bill if it were linked to a broad-based tax increase.

That's closer to the real game: The House speaker and others in the Assembly believe that Maryland must face the reality that new taxes are unavoidable. He doesn't think Mr. Ehrlich will do that because he promised no taxes. So he is attempting to force the governor's hand.

Mr. Busch may actually be calling for bigger and better slots, a bill that allows many to compete for the slots license. He'd like to see the market include "destination venues," including perhaps the Inner Harbor. If you open the market, you open it, right?

The governor might have had slots this year if he had handled it better, if he had had better legislative managers, if he had not allowed the image of government enriching fat-cats, if he had made the arguments forcefully himself, if he hadn't seemed unconcerned with the critical details of his proposal. He had a lot of advantages, including support of the powerful Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, but he squandered them.

And yet he may still win. Legislators are more and more sobered by the magnitude of the budget deficits reaching out in front of them.

To make slots happen, though, the governor will have to compromise. He'll have to raise taxes. Marylanders want efficiency, but they also want roads and bridges. They want law enforcement. They want higher education and child care for struggling welfare moms. They want mental health clinics and Medicaid. They want, in short, a compassionate government. Together, these consumers are a majority.

So, instead of blustering and bluffing over the bodies of the most vulnerable, he should be pulling together a creative team of governmental engineers who can show Marylanders a better way. Scorched earth isn't better.

Those who say he will end this session without a big victory are wrong. He's already won on the anti-big-government front. No one in Annapolis talks about the kind of tax increases Republicans hate. No one has a new program to sell. They've talked about deficit-closing taxes only. So, aided by the deficit, he set the agenda.

These next few hours, leading to a scheduled adjournment tomorrow at midnight, will feature prayers for mercy from the knife wielded by friend and foe alike. If there's pride in that, it's there for the taking.

Mr. Ehrlich has probably lost slots this year, the battle he most wanted to win - predictable for the first Republican governor in 36 years. But he can still win the war if he doesn't insist on acting like a loser.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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