Improving the odds?

January 22, 2004

WHAT A pick: Paul E. Weisengoff, retired Baltimore lawmaker, racing maven and lobbyist for state track owners in years past, has been hired as part of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legislative team in Annapolis. The governor's legislative expectations must really be low if he needs this horse in his stable.

Mr. Weisengoff says he is getting paid $28,000 (no expenses) to help the governor in his "relations" with the General Assembly. And those lawmakers can be a testy, sensitive bunch. As for that little matter of legalizing slot machines? Mr. Weisengoff says, "If the governor is for them, I'm for them. If the governor is against them, I'm against them. I'm a hired gun." But we all know where Mr. Ehrlich stands on that issue - slot machines are his long-term solution for the state's rolling deficit. Hiring a racetrack lobbyist as part of your legislative team when the racing industry has tied its viability to slots raises the question of who is working for whom.

Mr. Ehrlich's failed attempt to legalize slots last year would have given track owners a bigger take of the pot than the state. It smacked of a big-time bailout and windfall for an industry that has already been on the public dole with few improvements to show for it. Mr. Ehrlich, who campaigned against a culture of corruption in Annapolis, undermines his credibility with the hiring of Mr. Weisengoff. The governor returns to Annapolis this year insisting that legalizing slots is the only way to fill that deficit hole, barring painful program cuts. But legislators in the House of Delegates have not signed on; their speaker is opposed to balancing the state budget with gambling revenue.

That's where Mr. Weisengoff would presumably come in. His relationship with the state racing industry is legendary. He chaired a legislative committee on horse racing for 17 years and has earned $155,146 since 1997 as a lobbyist for the Laurel Racing Association and the Maryland Jockey Club, whose owners desperately want slot machines legalized here. But it's questionable how far his influence goes these days.

Mr. Weisengoff, 71, says he had planned to sit out the session until the governor called, and hadn't even spoken to Maryland racing executive Joseph A. De Francis Jr. about a job. For the record, he has never been the chief lobbyist for Laurel and Pimlico, and earned considerably less than the law firm that is. And Mr. Weisengoff wants to be clear about his duties for the governor : "I was not hired to be a hired gun to take care of Joe De Francis." Well, that's settled - isn't it?

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