Old rhetoric on slots back to haunt 'em

The Political Game

Gambling: Republicans and Democrats alike are finding their counterparts are quick to point out they've made 180-degree turnarounds on the issue.

August 24, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

OVER THE decade that Maryland lawmakers have been studying casino-style gambling, many delegates and senators have taken stands that differ from their current positions, and their words are returning to haunt them.

After the House of Delegates Republican Caucus announced its support last week for an immediate special legislative session to pass a slots bill, aides to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, quickly noted that many of those Republicans held a similar news conference in 1995 - when they vowed to vote en bloc against casino gambling.

During the 1995 news conference, then-Del. Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County, the former minority leader and now a state senator, called casinos "a zero-sum game, destroying as many jobs as it creates."

Republicans opposed "the concept that luck beats hard work and that you can get something for nothing," he said.

"Maryland has a rich history of political corruption and, given the experience of other states, there is no doubt in my mind that elected officials will end up in prison," Kittleman said.

That was before the election of a Republican governor who has made slots the cornerstone of his agenda.

Today, Republicans say that slots are the will of the people, and that Busch and other House Democrats are thwarting the public's desires by blocking a floor vote. They also say that competition from Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have changed the equation.

Also last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tossed some of Busch's words back in his face.

Responding to the speaker's call for a November referendum on slots, the governor repeated Busch's comments from 1998 on a proposed slots referendum as they were quoted then by The Capital of Annapolis:

"Call me old-fashioned, but I think these are the issues that are supposed to be debated here. ... Government should not be sitting around saying, `We're going to pass the tough decisions off on you' [the people]."

Busch said this week that a referendum was not his first choice for a way to settle the debate, and that he agreed to consider the possibility after outreach from fellow Democrat Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

But Busch is now so wedded to a referendum that he says Ehrlich must agree to the concept of a vote before the two leaders debate details of a slots plan such as location of facilities.

Insurance chief assures fund-raiser role is all talk

Some Democrats are crying foul over state Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr.'s scheduled appearance tomorrow at a $125-a-ticket White Marsh fund-raiser for state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.

Redmer is a former Maryland House minority leader and a former insurance salesman, and Democrats are keeping a close eye on his dealings with the industry. His predecessor, Steven B. Larsen, developed a reputation as a tough regulator, but Ehrlich has said he wants his administration to take a more business-friendly approach with the insurance industry and in other areas.

Busch, the current House speaker, said Redmer appears to be politicizing an office that the legislature pains to insulate from politics by instituting a five-year term and protecting the commissioner from being fired by the governor.

"It's basically saying to the industry, `You better be here, because if you have issues in front of me or in front of the Senate, we need to know you support us,'" Busch said. "It compromises the ability of the commissioner to be an independent, nonpartisan commissioner."

Last year, insurance industry lawyer David M. Funk canceled a fund-raiser for Ehrlich with Redmer as the headliner after critics raised questions over the propriety of the event. In a letter soliciting guests, Funk had called the gathering a chance to tell the administration that the insurance industry "is united in its view that a more favorable regulatory environment needs to be established in the state."

Pipkin and Redmer deny that the regulator's appearance at the Pipkin event poses a problem, and say they are only practicing what Democrats have perfected over the years.

"I haven't sold any tickets. I am there to chat," Redmer said. "I don't think it is any different than what has been happening on the Democratic side of the ledger for dozens and dozens of years."

Redmer noted that federal law prohibits the companies he regulates from contributing to Pipkin's campaign, although individual executives and businessmen can make contributions.

"He's a guest speaker, that's all," Pipkin said. "It's the Democratic Party upset that we are going to have a two-party system in the state."

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