The Assembly's man in front of the train

House Speaker Busch supports tax increases, not slots, to raise revenue

March 26, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

When a phalanx of lobbyists descended on Annapolis with the $1.3 billion proposal to sell Maryland's Blue Cross and Blue Shield to a California-based, for-profit corporation, Michael E. Busch was among the first lawmakers to raise a stink.

Then a committee chairman, Busch decried the move as inconsistent with the mission of the state's largest nonprofit insurer.

"I would encourage every citizen to contact their legislator on how they feel on this issue," he said in January 2002.

Scores of citizens did, and the deal collapsed when it was revealed that the executives pushing for approval stood to gain lucrative bonuses. The state instead reformed Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which remains a nonprofit.

It was vintage Busch, colleagues say.

"He's the guy standing in front of the freight train, hand out, bang, saying, `Stop!'" said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a fellow Democrat.

Now the speaker of the House, Busch is again standing in front of a train, hand out. His certitude, and specifically his determination to have taxpayers rather than gamblers pay for the state's public schools, makes Busch a polarizing figure these days in Annapolis.

He has been called an obstructionist and has been accused of leading his party into "mass political suicide." State Republicans are painting him as the personification of a tax-and-spend liberal, putting a sign in the window of their West Street party headquarters that ridicules his $670 million package of tax increases and reforms.

On WBAL Radio, Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, openly speculated that the speaker might be overthrown by the Democrats for pushing his plan.

"Bottom line, I don't think it's an issue of slots or income tax," said Maryland Republican Party Chairman John Kane. "I think it's just an issue of Busch not wanting Ehrlich to succeed, and it's going to backfire on him."

But Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, sees raising state money through slots as a gimmick, or "some kind of trickery." He would rather see lawmakers take the unpopular step of inching up the sales tax by a penny, and raising state and corporate income taxes, than watch slot machines land in Maryland.

All of which makes him either a principled hero or, to supporters of slots, the ultimate contrarian, the guy who insists on zagging instead of zigging.

Busch has a reputation of finding his foothold on an issue and weathering the fallout, said Steven B. Larsen, a former Maryland insurance commissioner turned lobbyist who has known the speaker since Busch's days on the House Economic Matters Committee.

"There is a thread throughout his political thinking," said Larsen. "He's down there to represent the interests of people who don't have lobbyists running around Annapolis. And he is less concerned about political consequences and more concerned about `Is this the right thing to do?'"

Busch, 57, was born in Baltimore and graduated from St. Mary's High School in Annapolis. He received a degree in education from Temple University and worked as a teacher and coach at his old high school for several years before becoming administrator for youth athletics in the county recreation department.

He was elected to the House in 1987 and soon befriended another rookie lawmaker, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The two were fast friends, though their relationship has been tested since Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002 and, shortly after, Busch was voted speaker.

Ehrlich, who campaigned on a pledge to use slots to generate revenue to pay for future education costs, refuses to discuss Busch's opposition.

"Not my business or my concern," Ehrlich said this week outside the State House. "The speaker's political future, his votes, his philosophy, I'm sure, will be relevant in an election year, but until we reach that point, it's no concern of mine."

Seventeen days before the General Assembly wraps up, having garnered enough solid partisan support for his tax plan to get it through the House and over to the Senate, Busch isn't feeling terribly heroic.

"Sometimes it's the tough decision that you have to make," he said. His voice is hoarse and weary, and he's ready for the session's end, or sine die, when he resumes his job as assistant to the county's recreation and parks director.

"No one will be happier than me when sine die rolls around," he said.

Michael E. Busch

Age: 57

Personal: Born in Baltimore, lives in Anne Arundel County. Married with two children.

Occupation: formerly a teacher and coach, now assistant to the director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks.

Political resume: Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates since Jan. 8, 2002; chairman, House Economic Matters Committee, 1994-2003; chairman, Anne Arundel County delegation, 1992-1993; member of the House since 1987. Democrat.

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