Even more proof that all politics is local

April 11, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

SUDDENLY, ANNAPOLIS looks like a giant real estate agency.

The new state motto: location, location, location.

The epic struggle over slots and the budget came down to that last week as House Speaker Michael E. Busch unveiled his slot machine proposal. He would put the machines in parts of Maryland declared off limits by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Mr. Busch's deft riposte brought squeals of anguish: A poison pill to kill the deal! Rank politics! Oh, my. What Mr. Busch had done was call the governor on those elements of his slots proposal which seem hypocritical: On one hand, Mr. Ehrlich says he has a mandate from the people to impose slots. On the other, he's exempted many of his core voter neighborhoods -- Baltimore County, Cambridge, etc. -- from any adverse slots impact.

The Busch map exposes the realities: Many Republican legislators don't want to vote for the governor's bill because their constituents don't want slots in their backyards. A "yes" vote on slots could hurt them.

Democrats were expected to carry the ball for the Republican governor. So, Mr. Busch is saying, among other things: Round up your votes if you want slots.

But there's more.

The speaker is also saying show us precisely how you will solve the long-term budget problem of Maryland with or without more tax revenue. The answers have been vague. The politics are clearer. Mr. Busch proposed a $670 million tax package, a responsible governing solution which his critics say gave the governor a big political victory: There were the Democrats burnishing a suicidal image as the Big Tax Party, while Mr. Ehrlich just said "no, no" to the tax addiction of Democrats. Many in Annapolis these days believe responsibility is poor politics.

Until Mr. Busch offered his slots proposal, many thought he had lost the political battle, asking Democrats to vote for taxes and putting them in jeopardy of losing to no-new-tax proponents. But now if the governor won't support a more equitable slots bill -- and if his GOP allies won't vote for it -- his political position may not be as strong.

What may be left for this year is ultimate gridlock. Until Mr. Busch offered his plan, the only movement last week came from Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, an Ehrlich fan, who suggested that the governor start acting like one.

Governor Ehrlich and his supporters have urged support of slots on the absurd contention that he was elected primarily for that purpose. Slots could very well push Maryland over the brink into more addictive gambling, and not just the mortgage-risking addiction of people but the addiction of government itself.

It seems much more likely that Mr. Ehrlich was elected because a majority of Marylanders thought he would be a better governor than his opponent. Presumably, they thought he would bring more to the table than slots.

He has, but some of his good ideas -- his other promises -- are being obliterated by the preoccupation with slots and by his promise not to raise sales or income taxes.

In the fantasy future laid out for us, slots will erase the civic obligation to pay for roads, public education, medical care for the poor and virtually everything else government does, more or less invisibly, to keep the state up and running. Too many people are willing to condemn all of that out of hand. But the more you know about how programs and agencies work, the harder it is to do the cutting: You see interrelationships; you see the objectives; you see good legislating that has built a good and caring governmental system.

Without a new revenue source to sustain these programs, Mr. Busch was ready to stick a fork in the slots bill, judging that he would never get a commitment for new revenue if he gave in on slots. His new locations plan may have been the fork. But maybe not. There's one more day to go before the agony of this legislative session is scheduled to end.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays

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