One-word answer to slots impasse: referendum

April 18, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

MARYLAND Democrats slouched toward home after their labors in Annapolis, worried that principle could cost them their careers.

Many fear they lost Round Two of their four-year political bout with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The House of Delegates defeated Mr. Ehrlich's proposal to anchor the state's finances with gambling dollars. He declined to join them in a comprehensive plan to erase the $830 million difference between expected revenue and spending. He chose the free-money approach, embracing slots and calling every revenue-raising gambit a fee. Democrats offered cold showers, root canal and responsibility.

They watched their Republican colleagues smile slyly and say, as the slots-taxes debate evolved: "We win either way." Kill slots, leave $800 million (eventually) in "found" money on the table and take the consequences. Not vulnerable enough? Put the cherry on the sundae and vote "yes" on new taxes. Go ahead, said the GOP, make our Election Day. Republicans imagine historic gains at the polls in 2006, not to speak of Mr. Ehrlich's re-election.

Democrats could try to lead and educate. Or they may hope Marylanders will sit down around the kitchen table (right after they've joyfully filed their state and federal income tax returns) to think about how they can help state government solve its fiscal problem. Mom or Dad will lead seminars on structural deficits, spending affordability guidelines and the AAA bond rating.

But wait. There's a way to ease the pain. Del. Shane E. Pendergrass of Howard County has urged her Democratic colleagues to shift the burden of slots to the voters. She wants the Assembly to put the issue to referendum, allowing voters to say, with one vote, whether they want slots in Maryland and in their own counties. A recent Gonzales Research poll found that about 80 percent of Marylanders favored a referendum on the slots question.

Had it passed, voters would have cast ballots in the general election this fall for or against slots. The machines would be allowed a) only if a majority of Marylanders voted "yes" and b) only in those counties where a majority of voters had said they wanted them.

This idea had much to recommend it, particularly after House Speaker Michael E. Busch proposed a new set of locations for the slot emporiums. His bill would have put slots in several Republican districts, a ploy designed to unmask the hypocrisy of GOP support for more gambling.

Republicans don't want more taxes. But many of their constituents don't want slots, either. They want someone else to do the heavy gambling. The governor keeps saying his election provided a mandate for slots, but the mandate apparently doesn't exist in his political base.

The Pendergrass plan would have allowed time for the voters to digest some of the shadowy concepts at play here. It would have focused more attention on the political weakness of the governor's position and the reasoning behind the Busch plan. Just in case the principal argument doesn't work, a clearer view of the politics might have helped.

Underappreciated in the waning days of the legislative session was Speaker Busch's support for a referendum. He knows the difficulties some of his members will face as they try to explain their votes for taxes and against the governor's slots proposal. He thought the referendum idea would reduce the pressure by allowing Marylanders to state their views.

Win or lose, the referendum approach would have taken the issue off the table permanently - saving the Assembly from at least one more year in which slots challenge legislators to do the right thing. But there were too many legislators whose districts don't want slots and aren't afflicted with terminal anti-tax hysteria. They wanted to go home with a clear win: Slots had been defeated! Whether others might lose their seats as a result meant less to them.

It's possible, but not likely, that the referendum idea could be revived. A special session would be needed. It doesn't seem likely.

Meanwhile, Governor Ehrlich said he will spend his summer vacation marching in parades and explaining how Democrats killed the $800 million gambling goose and voted "yes" on taxes. Seminars won't be needed.

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

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