Busch slots bill called `political poker'

Tactics: Critics say the measure calling for machines in GOP districts is a `ploy' meant to defeat gambling legislation.

General Assembly

April 09, 2004|By Greg Garland and Howard Libit | Greg Garland and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Supporters of expanded gambling for Maryland have begged and badgered House Speaker Michael E. Busch to propose his own plan for slot machines ever since he killed the governor's bill last year.

Yesterday, he obliged them, coming out with a plan to legalize thousands of the machines across the state. But gambling proponents say it's a trick.

"It's another effort to thwart the governor and the will of the people of this state," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat. "It's despicable. It's horrible. We've hit a new low down here."

Busch unveiled a bill that calls for publicly owned slot emporiums at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium; the Rocky Gap golf resort and convention center in Allegany County; Cambridge in Dorchester County; Harford and Frederick counties; and the Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County.

"By sticking slots casinos in the Republicans' back yards, where citizens have already said they don't want them, he's making a pretty compelling statement," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"How can people who say they don't want slots in their districts vote for them? He's playing political poker here. He's saying, `Put up or shut up.' It's great political stuff."

But Busch's decision to craft a House gambling bill has some slots foes nervous as well.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and outspoken slots opponent, said he fears the maneuver could backfire - that it could be part of a negotiating strategy to try to get Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to budge on raising taxes.

"We should not play legislative chess with slots," Franchot said. "We should not be too cute by half by putting slots casinos in Republican districts. We should kill slots in committee and take responsibility for doing something good for the state of Maryland."

Many House members took a difficult, principled vote on Busch's plan to raise an additional $670 million in taxes because they saw it as a more responsible way to raise revenues for the state than legalizing slot machine gambling, Franchot said.

He said they would regard it as a betrayal if a compromise emerges that combines tax increases with slots.

Busch has said he sees expanding gambling as bad public policy and is personally opposed to legalizing slots but recognizes that the House is divided on the issue. He said he wants to give members a chance to vote on a slots bill that makes the most economic sense for Maryland taxpayers.

"I can't ignore the fact there are many members of the General Assembly who want to vote for slots," Busch said, promising he would vote no. "There is no guarantee this will pass. I have not asked anyone to support this, and I will not ask anyone to support this."

But Republicans and Senate leaders pronounced the bill dead on arrival.

"The slots bill has been before this body for two years, yet we're just getting to it with four days left," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip. "That's outrageous. The people deserve better."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called Busch's proposal a "ploy" aimed at defeating slots.

The Senate approved a bill this year that would allow slots at three horseracing tracks and at three free-standing slots casinos - restricting the latter to Baltimore City and Prince George's and Cecil counties.

"You have to have your heart and soul in something to be able to move forward," Miller said. "[Busch] is going to work against his own bill that he's drafted. It's not statesmanship. It's gamesmanship. It's a ploy. And with three days left in the session, we don't need ploys. We need action."

Norris said there is some risk in allowing a slots bill to move to the House floor for a vote but it appears to be one Busch is willing to take. He said it would be "most unusual" for any speaker to put forward a proposal whose outcome he did not know in advance.

"If he succeeds in killing slots, it will be seen as a brilliant tactic," Norris said. "On the other hand, if somehow slots get approved as a result of it, it has to be viewed as a failure because he is an opponent of slots."

But other delegates who have been outspoken foes of slots insist they have confidence in the speaker's strategy.

"I've got faith in my speaker," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat. "The plan is meant to take the heat off of him. If Republicans want slots, they should put the facilities in their districts."

Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat and slots opponent, said Busch owed it to slots supporters to come up with something.

"He recognizes that within the Democratic caucus, we have a split and there are many members who want to vote for slots," Brown said. "Let's put together a bill that is sensible, more sensible than the bill sent over by the Senate, and see if it goes up or down."

Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of the anti-slots group stopslotsmaryland.com, says he sees Busch's proposal as a savvy tactical maneuver.

"I think the brilliance of this bill is that it forces Republican legislators to visualize slots in their own communities," he said.

"The governor has been clamoring for a floor vote and this bill is going to give the governor that floor vote," Meisner said. "When it fails, that should end the slots debate once and for all. If this works, it's a brilliant move."

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

Assembly on baltimoresun.com

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Read the text of proposed legislation, including the Senate slots bill, SB 197; the budget bill, SB 125; the flush tax, HB 292; the hate-crimes bill, HB 365; the minority procurement bill, SB 904.

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