Slots may represent eternal legislative life

August 22, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

GOOD MORNING, students. We begin today with another State House vocabulary lesson.

Thanks to the saving wonders of parliamentary procedure, death in the lawmaking precincts includes a step beyond the terminal moment. A bill that fails in committee or at the hands of either house can be thought of as dead. Properly so.

But veterans of the game will smile and say, "Yes, it's dead. But is it dead dead?" They mean can something happen that will bring it back: a vote to reconsider, for example. Think of it as the legislative Lazarus effect.

Which brings us to slots. Didn't you just know that was coming!

Slots, like the poor, apparently will be with us always. Slots are dead, but are they dead dead?

Which brings us to another bit of legislative-speak:When a bill dies in Annapolis, its executioners are asked to explain why. They usually will comply.

Whereupon our cagey veteran asks, "OK, I know that's the reason, but what's the real reason?"

The answer, my friends, always depends upon whom you ask. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other Republicans will point at House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Perhaps, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will finger the speaker, too. They're partly right.

No fan of bad legislation that enriches the already-rich or of slots, Mr. Busch acceded to the gambling fever by saying he would support a program that puts the machines in places accessible to the players. But he would only do that if the voters agree in a referendum. There was no meaningful negotiation on the competing slots maps -- the Busch locations or the racetrack-dominated map drawn by Mr. Ehrlich -- so the idea appears to be dead. No special legislative session appears likely and no referendum.

Mr. Busch laid out his bill, offering it as wholly negotiable, save for the referendum. Nothing resembling the give-and-take compromising of a negotiation occurred. There was no "Can you live with this on that?" for example. That sort of discussion once characterized the problem-solving instinct of Annapolis. No more, it seems.

Mr. Miller, who appeared to favor a vote of the people, now nixes that idea, too. Some suggest he was out to see if an acceptable bill could be fashioned by the major players -- and then quickly voted into law without the referendum. When that appeared impossible, the referendum solution faded as well.

Mr. Ehrlich says his election was a referendum on slots. It's a convenient pose. He was elected. He did propose slots. But, one hopes, voters had more in mind when they elected him. Perhaps he is right to suggest that he should be allowed to put his program into place, and slots are the centerpiece of that program. A recent poll shows that a majority of Marylanders want slots; of those who do, 89 percent want a referendum.

Democrats who oppose slots say, however, that they represent a transcendent issue for Maryland, a decision the voters should make. Both sides agree that politics are at the heart of the matter. Democrats believe Mr. Ehrlich's strategists believe he cannot lose politically either way: He gets his slots program or he doesn't and blames the Democrats for cuts in social programs. Mr. Ehrlich's men say slots are the best example of a new partisan ethic in Annapolis that goes under this heading: Bob must lose.

So, class, slots are dead and could remain dead in the 2005 legislative session. There is pressure on Democrats and Republicans to vote for a bill because their constituents don't want to pay more in taxes. And there is huge money pressure from the gambling moguls who see a chance get a lot richer.

But plenty of Marylanders with the same ferocity are opposed to more gambling. If the same Ehrlich administration bill returns, its chances are not great. A better economic picture, reducing the need for slots revenue, will be a pressure relief valve in the short term.

Which could bring us to the election of 2006. If Mr. Ehrlich is re-elected, he will be able to say with more justification that the voters wanted slots and chose him for that reason. If he loses, slots will be dead dead. Or not.

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

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