Leading responsibly

December 21, 2003

TO QUOTE the well-known philosopher Yogi Berra, "It's deja vu all over again."

In the General Assembly's last session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made legalizing slot machines in Maryland the core of his legislative thrust. But his slots plan was at best sketchy and amounted to a public giveaway to state racetrack owners of a monopoly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It then took him two-thirds of the three-month session to come up with a bill for debate, one ultimately voted down by the House of Delegates.

The legislative session closed with the governor insisting that slots, not tax hikes, remained his answer to the state's structural budget deficit, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch still pushing instead for a sales tax increase.

It's now less than a month till the Assembly's next session opens, and little has changed: Mr. Ehrlich says no new taxes; Mr. Busch says he'll consider slots only if hitched to a tax increase. If anything, their positions have hardened, as indicated by rising public frictions last week. Meanwhile, the long-term state deficit persists undented. What a prescription for a disastrous legislative session.

Which brings us to the question: Who's leading responsibly?

Governor Ehrlich, who at one point last week said he may pitch much the same slots bill he proposed last year, one that would give 11,500 machines to four Maryland tracks? Or Speaker Busch, who frames the essential question as not about slots but about addressing the state deficit - for which gambling revenue is just one tool, by itself insufficient?

The answer is all too clear.

The speaker is publicly discussing options for solving the state's fiscal problems. Where's Mr. Ehrlich's plan?

The speaker is making a case - a strong one at that - for not handing the racing industry a huge share of slots' largesse. Is Mr. Ehrlich outlining his case for doing so?

The speaker is acknowledging that legalizing gambling inevitably would bring social problems that cannot be ignored. Is Mr. Ehrlich talking about that?

And the speaker is signaling he may be open to negotiating a slots-and-taxes deal with the governor, while Mr. Ehrlich's public stance is an almost petulant no deal, no way.

Of course, Mr. Busch also is holding down his end of this showdown, playing politics, too. The House subcommittee studying slots, under his hand, is hardly proceeding independently and is likely to come up with only very general findings. (The state should maximize its revenues, minimize the impact on communities, help problem gamblers.)

But Maryland deserves much better than this from its governor. The state's projections have long forecast its budget deficit at some $700 million next fiscal year, $1.2 billion the year after, and about $1.8 billion by 2008. Instead of getting out front with a comprehensive structural solution - instead of leading responsibly - Mr. Ehrlich is holding that hostage to his barely articulated desire for slots.

This standoff is far from over. In the end, the governor may yet break Mr. Busch's hold on the House. But every Marylander should thank the speaker for slowing down the slots steamroller by responsibly asking the questions that must be asked.

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