Ehrlich took slots plan and fumbled it for a loss

April 08, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TO KEEP himself from looking like a complete legislative loser, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will now do what he thinks he does best. He will hit the road and talk directly to voters. He will exhibit his schoolboy charm. He will make himself available to the radio talk-show guys who already think he's swell. He will attempt to rewrite the story of the past 90 days for people who don't know the history of the last 20 minutes.

He made slot machines the centerpiece of his first General Assembly session, and he bungled it so badly that he now licks his wounds and braces everybody for the worst. At the State House yesterday, Democrats used the language of catastrophe to describe the session that ended last night. Now there is bleak talk of the governor cutting aid to local government, colleges, mental health programs, Head Start, drug programs, government jobs, and of the Thornton school aid financial package falling apart.

"I've never seen anything like it," Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday at the State House. "A disaster, an absolute disaster. The only campaign promises the governor's keeping are slots and no new taxes. But the slots deal he offered was horrible. That's why it didn't pass. Here's the governor's top priority, and they had hearings for a bill without having a [legitimate] bill. How embarrassing is that?"

Democratic legislators propose modest tax hikes to avoid painful cuts, and the governor says forget it. He reminds everyone that he made a campaign pledge to avoid new taxes and will stand by that pledge. Excuse us? Did Ehrlich not simultaneously pledge to fully fund Thornton?

"Yes, of course," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says sadly. "But now, I'm very worried about it."

Grasmick's position is a little awkward on a few levels. Last summer, before he picked Michael S. Steele as his running mate, Ehrlich wanted Grasmick as lieutenant governor. She said no; her great love is education, not politics. But she found herself lobbying for slots this session in hopes of preserving Thornton money.

"I've been criticized," Grasmick said yesterday. "People told me, `How can you stand up for gambling?' My answer is, it's the only new revenue source, and the schools must have that money. But now ..."

Grasmick says her "frustration" is with House members who voted against the governor's slots plan. On a State House stairway yesterday, Del. John S. Arnick declared that such talk is common among voters.

"Phone calls," he said. "Lot of calls, and they're blaming [Michael] Busch for slots."

In his House speaker's office, Michael E. Busch ducked out of yesterday's morning rain, plopped into a chair and heaved an exhausted sigh. He has heard the talk -- that he's "morally opposed" to slots. Not true, he said. He has heard that he secretly wants to see the Republican Ehrlich fall on his face. "He was my friend," Busch said of Ehrlich, dismissing the thought. "He's still my friend."

What he contends is what many in Annapolis contend -- that neither the governor nor his staff prepared a compelling case that their slots plan was fiscal salvation for the state, or that it was fair in its financial gifts.

"Where was the plan?" Busch said. "The plan they had was a bad plan, and it failed because the governor didn't have a bill 50 days into the session. He overslept. And then he `misleads' everybody on who's actually going to get the money.

" `Mislead,' " Busch says again. His eyes roll. "That's a kind word, what they did with those figures. The press figured it out in 15 minutes," that the governor cut the percentage of slots money going to schools and raised the cut going to racetrack owners who helped bankroll his campaign.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who tried to push slots through, "said it was more bungled than a circus act," Busch said. "They didn't have a clue. You'd think they'd have gone to [Mayor Martin] O'Malley, to [Anne Arundel County Executive Janet] Owens, to talk about economic impact in their communities. Where was that?

"Most people put more planning into their summer vacations than these people put into their legislative centerpiece," Busch said. "So now he wants to cut programs instead of raising taxes. Look, we cut taxes 10 percent -- $600 million -- during times of plenty."

These are not times of plenty. Maryland faces what states across the country face -- budget crises. But other states fight it with more than a flimsy and misleading gambling plan and a resolution not to raise taxes, no matter what.

"So now," said Busch, "they'll make the rounds of talk radio, and they'll do 30-second sound bites on television, and pretend it's not their fault, it's the legislature's. When the truth is, they fumbled the ball. They couldn't get the ball from the center to the quarterback, much less run it downfield."

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