State of the slots

January 30, 2004

IN HIS ANNUAL State of the State message to the General Assembly yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hit many of the right notes. He outlined an agenda that was moderate in both scope and politics and spoke of compromise and bipartisan cooperation.

But on one issue, he was remarkably tone deaf, his uncompromising position completely discordant with the other 95 percent of his speech, particularly his plea not to let Annapolis plunge into Washington-like dysfunction. Guess which issue? Hint: It involves little revolving pictures and people losing lots of money.

Ding-ding-ding. Yes, you win. Say what you will about Maryland's governor, he's consistent - his uncompromising position on slots is still, well, uncompromising.

Place yourself in the crowd in the House of Delegates chamber yesterday. For 30 minutes or so, you heard Mr. Ehrlich outline an agenda that could pick up a lot of votes this session. He wants to clean up sewage treatment plants, help reduce medical malpractice costs, and make industrial sites more attractive for development. He wants to spend more money on public education, roads and drug treatment.

Sounds good, right? The worst that can be said of this plan is that it's timid, especially for a popular governor at the peak of his political powers. But in the current budget morass, such caution was understandable, perhaps even appropriate.

More important, the governor was reasonable. On none of these issues was he absolute. He recognized the need to balance competing interests, and fondly recalled the "cooperation that prevailed in this chamber" back in the days when he was a freshman delegate.

He talked of Churchill, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan. Heck, he mentioned more Democratic ex-presidents than Republicans.

Yet when it came time to talk about his plans to put slot machines at racetracks and elsewhere, the words Mr. Ehrlich chose were these: "We should pass a clean bill, a clean bill." In the vernacular of Annapolis, a clean bill is one that has not been amended. In other words, he doesn't want a lot of compromise on this bill. It's his way or the highway.

Aides said after the speech that Mr. Ehrlich meant only that he didn't want any taxes attached to slots.

But this is a peculiar logic that emanates from the second floor of the State House. Mr. Ehrlich has already sought tax increases - in the state's property tax, the tax on out-of-state corporations, and likely soon on car registrations, not to mention a slew of assorted fee increases.

Slots not tied to anything else? Mr. Ehrlich has already done plenty of tying. He's shackled slots to education spending, the $1.3 billion Thornton plan. It's fine for the governor to hold a popular initiative hostage, he made clear, but nothing else is on the table.

Mr. Ehrlich understands Annapolis, and on many subjects, he is demonstrating flexibility. But sadly, not on the most important one - finding a way to solve the state's looming $1 billion budget deficit. Based on his speech yesterday, the future of the state looks like a high-stakes gamble. That's not sound leadership.

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