Slots debate gets muddier

The Political Game

Gambling: A House panel's study will also address horse-racing reforms.

December 16, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A MUCH-anticipated gambling study being completed by the House Ways and Means Committee will address more than slot machines, House Speaker Michael E. Busch now says.

The study will also include ways to reform the horse-racing industry in Maryland.

Busch told a gathering of local officials at a Maryland Association of Counties conference last week that racing reform must also be considered as state leaders continue their debate over slot-machines legalization.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. primarily wants slots at racetracks, but Busch seems to be leaning in a different direction.

He believes building state-owned facilities outside of neighborhoods is a better bet. Those emporiums, the theory goes, would be better able to capture Maryland slots players now heading to Delaware, West Virginia and New Jersey, without enriching track owners.

Yesterday, Busch refused to disclose specifics about what types of reforms he thinks the racing industry needs. He said he needs to talk with House members first and work through ideas.

Busch says the committee study will produce "findings," not a specific recommendation or legislation. In fact, Busch says House leadership won't draft a gambling bill of its own.

But State House insiders know that those "findings" will be closely read by the governor's office as a roadmap of what is acceptable to Busch, his chief opponent in the gambling debate.

Adding racing reform ideas to the mix can only serve to further complicate a divisive issue that could consume the General Assembly when it convenes next month.

Some are questioning pollster's way with words

A majority of Marylanders continue to approve of Ehrlich's performance as governor, according to the results of a telephone survey of 806 regular voters released last week by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

Ehrlich's job-approval rating was 55 percent, the poll found, roughly the same as the 57 percent recorded by pollster Patrick Gonzales in August and the 56 percent he found in March. Eighty-four percent of Republicans like the governor's performance, compared with 38 percent of Democrats.

Gonzales acknowledged yesterday that he has received some heat from his Democratic friends over the wording of another question, on whether the $1.3 billion Thornton education plan should be fully funded on schedule or stretched out.

"Despite a projected budget deficit of $780 million in the coming year, the state of Maryland has made a commitment to increase funding for public education by $380 million this year as recommended by the Thornton Commission," the question reads. "Do you think it's more important to fully fund Thornton this year, or should the state spread out funding for Thornton over a longer period in order to deal with the deficit?"

Spreading out the funding was favored by 54 percent of respondents, with 35 percent saying "stay on schedule" and 11 percent offering no opinion.

But by stressing the state's budget deficit at the beginning of the question, did Gonzales preordain the results? Some Democrats thought so.

"I had some that said they were appalled by it," Gonzales said yesterday. But he stands by the question as a fair summary of the debate unfolding in Annapolis.

"There is no such thing, I guess, as a perfect question," he said. "What I would submit is it is a fair representation of what is being talked about, that I hear about."

Gonzales said he did not think the results would change much if the question played down the budget deficit.

Critics give this speech two thumbs down

Ken Masters' performance at the Maryland Association of Counties winter meeting may have been dull by design, but that didn't help its reviews.

Masters, Ehrlich's chief lobbyist, told a crowd of county officials last week that he couldn't talk about the topic most on their minds: the condition of the state budget and what it means for them. For that, he said, they'd have to speak with budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., who did not attend the gathering in Solomons.

Masters then proceeded to plod through the topics he was authorized to speak on: "brownfields" legislation, medical malpractice reform, a witness protection law and other matters that will be a priority for the governor during next year's session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller spoke shortly after Masters, and harshly criticized the ex-delegate's presentation.

"You're not interested in any of this crap he has to say," Miller told county officials.

Masters might be articulating Ehrlich's objectives, he said, but they hold little relevance for county leaders. "There's nothing in the governor's proposal that helps you in any way, shape or form," Miller said.

He'd advise Ehrlich to nix the Norris talk

Weighing in on the Edward T. Norris police fund scandal, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer opined last week that he didn't think the affair will tarnish Mayor Martin O'Malley or Ehrlich.

Norris has been gone from the mayor's employ long enough for some distance, Schaefer said, but not with Ehrlich long enough to do damage.

But Schaefer said the governor should curb comments about rehiring Norris as state police superintendent if he is exonerated at trial. Ehrlich should "lay off that," he said.

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