Busch says he's planning on being right, not popular

January 13, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN HIS athletic life, Michael E. Busch was player, coach and referee. In his political life, he is the first line of defense against slot machines. As a referee, he was familiar with taunts from angry fans. "If you had one more eye, you'd be Cyclops" was one of the cheerier ones. As speaker of the House of Delegates, he longs for the arenas where the language was so refined.

The General Assembly opens its annual 90-day session tomorrow, but last year's business with the slot machines is unfinished. A year ago, the battle lines were drawn directly between Busch and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But the political got personal. Not only did Busch swat down slots legislation, he exposed the governor as ill-prepared and verbally intemperate. Not only did Ehrlich suffer legislative defeat, he used radio interviews and speeches to portray Busch as the villain in Maryland's attempts to get its financial house in order.

"There were," Busch was saying Sunday night, "attempts to demonize me. I understand that. I was demonized last year, and I may be demonized again. But it doesn't bother me. You try to do what you believe is right. I don't know if I'm necessarily popular, but sooner or later, people have to hear the facts. I didn't get into this to be popular. I may not be popular now, but at the end of four years, I'll be pretty close to right."

Busch wants to pull Maryland out of its economic troubles with a tax increase; Ehrlich, with slots revenue. But in the emotional shorthand of politics, the conflict sometimes sidesteps economics. We choose sides by personality. And in this conflict, the governor has a bully pulpit, while the House speaker's voice is relatively muted.

Over the weekend, newspaper polls posted numbers on the fight. A Sun poll said 52 percent of Marylanders want slots, but only 8 percent want millions of slots money to support racetracks -- while 83 percent would instead like slots money spread around the state. A Washington Post poll gave Ehrlich a 62 percent job approval rating. But there's a weird disconnect. Even with high personal approval, 49 percent couldn't name a single major accomplishment by the governor, and 13 percent declared he had accomplished nothing of substance in his first year in office.

"Well, he's a likable guy," Busch was saying now. "That was his MO when he was in the legislature, and it still is. It's the way he goes through life. He was popular in school, captain of the football team. He's personable. It's hard not to like him."

The same poll gave Busch an 18 percent favorable rating, 14 percent unfavorable -- and 68 percent had no opinion, an indication not only of mixed emotions but of the many voters outside Busch's Anne Arundel County home turf who do not even recognize his name.

"Voters want to like the people they put into office," Busch said. "The governor understands that. But I don't know if the average Marylander has figured out yet what's happening with this economy, and the cuts that are being made, and what these cuts mean to individuals, because he's immovable on taxes."

In the Sun poll, 36 percent favored a tax hike, 34 percent favored cutting government programs, and 20 percent favored a combination. But in the meantime, local governments are forced to cut programs, school budgets and health care are threatened, and college tuition goes up. All of this, while the governor proclaims, "No new taxes."

"So it's a shell game," Busch said. "On some level, Marylanders are going to pay more taxes in the next four years than we did in the last eight. It's a matter of what you want to call it. In my home county, for example, the median cost of a home is now $295,000. But the average police officer, the average firefighter or teacher, makes $40,000 to $45,000. The county can't afford to pay more.

"So how do these people find $295,000 homes? By moving to the Eastern Shore and commuting over here every day. They can't afford to live here any more. People don't identify this kind of thing with the governor. But he's cutting local government, and it's affecting their day-to-day services. Last year, 13 of the state's subdivisions had to raise taxes. It's not directly the governor, but it's the result of what he's doing."

A year ago, Ehrlich wanted to put slots at racetracks. Busch calls it "the poorest-structured bill I've seen in my 18 years" in the legislature. "You have a racing industry with tradition, but it's a disfunctional industry over the last decade. They get the financial breaks -- simulcasts, off-track betting, track-to-track betting -- but they have no plan they can delineate telling how they're going to get self-sufficient. The only thing they talk about is slots, which they have no background in running."

With public opinion now shifted away from slots money to bankroll the tracks, legislators are expected to ponder a variety of gambling bills this winter. But some say that variety will work against passage of any of them.

And the two faces symbolizing that conflict will remain -- the personable governor named Ehrlich, and the man preparing to be demonized, House Speaker Busch.

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