The blame game

September 10, 2004

AN 11TH-HOUR push to call a special legislative session to approve a fall referendum on slot machines came and went this week like a train passing in the night, whistling shrilly. Or rather, more like two trains passing each other in the night, their separate whistles shrilly discordant.

Did the two trains - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch - actually come very close to forging a deal that would have put slots before voters this November? Hard to tell, with all the whistling.

For a brief spell, they at least appeared close enough to alarm slots opponents. But true to the form of the entire draining debate over legalizing slots, the two quickly retreated to the distant positions they've held all along, taking to a whole new level their long-running political jujitsu match over who gets blamed for not solving the state's fiscal problems.

House Democrats slammed the governor for being unwilling to negotiate on slots. They doubted if he even could have delivered enough votes within his own party to approve a slots referendum - and they challenged him to step up to the plate.

In turn, Mr. Ehrlich didn't, claiming the Democrats acted in bad faith by changing the rules during the game - by first agreeing to the Senate slots plan and then saying let's negotiate an entirely new one. And he challenged them to show they could produce their own votes for a referendum.

As much as anything, the contest was over power - with the governor demanding that House Democrats simply swallow the Senate bill and House Democrats reminding him that Maryland has a bicameral legislature. In the end, Mr. Ehrlich declared the two days of political theater a complete waste of time - and truer words were never spoken.

For more than two years now, Maryland's political standoff over slots has consumed far too much time and energy in Annapolis. The high art of the blame game between the governor and the speaker has been even less productive. This state faces real problems that demand solutions now, starting with a long-term structural budget deficit that an improving economy cannot entirely heal.

Slots, of course, will return with next year's legislative session. Too much money - at least $700,000 in political donations from potential slots operators since 1999, according to the latest Common Cause tally - has been poured into the issue. And too much profit - slots licenses likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars - is at stake.

But both political leaders need to move on from slots and from their blame game to tackle the state's problems together. Mr. Busch needs to stop trying to shirk the "obstructionist" label pinned on him by the governor and proudly accept responsibility for derailing the Senate's ill-conceived slots plan. And Mr. Ehrlich needs to realize that Maryland indeed has a two-chamber legislature, and it's his responsibility to work with both in solving the state's problems.

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