Send in the clowns ... no, they're already here

September 12, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

SLOT MACHINES are the trick candle of Maryland politics. You may think it was blown out by the cold wind of partisanship, but you're wrong. Not possible. Money is powerful fuel.

Even if we could be rescued from this dreary plague, the good news would not be slots; it would be the possibility that Maryland's government leadership has moved back to its old problem-solving mode. So far, the leadership has failed. It has neither solved the problem nor called it off. Why? Too much money and too much political opportunity for partisan advantage.

In the days of one-party, Democratic government, issues like slots were almost always solved - though not always for the best. But they were dealt with. The One Party could not allow them to go unresolved. The GOP was so puny in those days it couldn't be blamed.

With a Republican governor, that is no longer true. Neither party has found a way to deal with an issue of this magnitude. There is no trust. Everyone suspects everyone of reneging, pulling the rug out, bad faith, incompetence - the whole catastrophe.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been quick to blame the Democrats. They've blamed him back.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the most powerful of the slots opponents, has insisted on a referendum as the way to slice through the knot of differences that hamstring the governor's initiative. At the recent GOP convention in New York, Maryland Republicans, speaking at their daily breakfast meetings, railed at Speaker Busch for refusing to allow a debate on the issue. They were wrong, of course. The issue has been debated for two years.

In the most recent round of futility, Mr. Busch declared that all issues were on the table. He did not say he was ready to concede every issue, to allow a bad bill (in his judgment) to be put on the ballot. His determination to negotiate appears to have triggered the latest failure.

Earlier, Governor Ehrlich said no to a referendum, period. One of his aides said a constitutional amendment for this issue would be like putting clown shoes on the Statue of Liberty. But the Maryland Constitution already looks like the legislative version of Imelda Marcos' closet. It's been amended a lot. And, finally, the governor appeared to change his position, to invite real talks. He and Mr. Busch met with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller last weekend. Had negotiations begun?

The shoe shopping hadn't ended, of course. Color and style had to be agreed upon by contentious forces. We are talking about locations for the slots parlors and various other matters of considerable importance. Who would run the operation, the state or private parties? Whose backyard would be favored with slots neon, slots billboards, slots litter and slots crime?

One good idea for a referendum would have required a vote with two outcomes: approval for slots in Maryland and, more specifically, approval on a county-by-county basis. In other words, the referendum would have to pass statewide to put slots in Maryland. To have them in your county, a majority of your neighborhoods would have to agree.

That approach was a real truth-in-slots measure: Are you for slots and all their baggage, or do you just want the money? The idea was too fiendishly honest to get very far in a political world. Democrats don't want to set the bar so high that they look like obstructionists. Republicans, those who want slots, don't want to risk losing.

All this may be academic now. Negotiations broke down amid the same tedious charge, countercharge we're all familiar with. There's very little time to prepare for a referendum on this year's election ballot. We will all wait for the next flicker of life on the candle that won't go out, a candle fueled by cash from the racing moguls.

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

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