In Annapolis, Ehrlich, Busch play blame game

Leaders duel over slots, taxes and budget woes, position parties for 2006

April 01, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

More than any other time in recent memory, blame is the name of the game in Annapolis.

With less than two weeks remaining in the General Assembly session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch are fully engaged in the fine art of finger-pointing over slot machines, taxes and the state's budget challenges.

They held dueling news conferences yesterday within 90 minutes, with each digging deeper into an entrenched position from which neither appears intent to budge. Busch won't allow slots without taxes. Ehrlich won't talk taxes in exchange for slots.

The back-and-forth volley had little to do with communicating with each other and everything to do with the new culture of recrimination in Annapolis.

Passing legislation in 2004 seems almost irrelevant. Positioning one's party for 2006 is what it's all about, according to Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"They're no longer addressing one another. They're addressing the public," he said. "That's not an indication of a willingness to bargain."

Busch and his Democratic leadership team began yesterday's exchange with a tightly scripted news conference at which they responded to Ehrlich's statement Tuesday that Medicaid and local government would bear the brunt if the House of Delegates does not pass a slots bill.

They arrived with a clever prop - a telephone directory-size Maryland budget book with a hole bored through it.

The message: The governor's budget has a hole in it that slots revenue can't fill over the next two years.

Each of Busch's committee chairmen chimed in with assigned talking points: We're ready to compromise. The governor hasn't provided a comprehensive solution. The threatened cuts to Medicaid would hurt the most vulnerable and put elderly nursing home residents out on the street.

Afterward, Democrats professed to be pleased with the message they delivered.

"We need to get every one in a little room talking to each other without the press," said Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County. "They've hit the airwaves and have had rallies. We've had our press conference. Now we can sit down and talk."

Not hardly. Within an hour, Ehrlich's office was spreading the word that the governor - who had been spending the morning bashing House Democrats on talk radio - would respond within the news cycle.

Right off the bat, the governor used his news conference to reject Busch's basic premise - that the Ehrlich slots plan would leave a budget shortfall over the next two years - as "the phoniest, baloneyest argument I've ever heard."

Ehrlich didn't read from a script, but the lines were familiar: He has a mandate for slots. The Democrats are thwarting the will of the people. And those Democrats are the same ones who got Maryland into the budget mess.

The governor brought a prop of his own, roughly the right size to plug the hole in Busch's book.

"It's the slots bill," he said.

The rapid-response political theater reminded some observers more of Capitol Hill or a national political campaign than an old-fashioned, clubby Annapolis legislative session.

Crenson said Ehrlich appears to have recognized that he's not going to prevail on slots legislation this session.

"He's betting that next session he'll be in a better position to get them," Crenson said. "What he's betting on is that nothing will happen - that Democrats in the legislature facing election in the very near future will weaken on raising taxes and vote for slots instead because it's the easy thing to do."

Crenson said Ehrlich has a strong advantage because the Democrats are not united. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a cheerleader for slots, chose to blame fellow Democrat Busch rather than Ehrlich.

"He speaks with one voice. That's his great advantage," Crenson said.

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