Location, location, location

February 22, 2005

THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY this week may be entering a confusing new political maze on slots, but the enduring truths at its core are simple matters of real estate - and hypocrisy:

Rare is the slots' supporter who wants the machines anywhere near his house. Statewide polls show support for slots even as Maryland's largest jurisdictions have been rejecting them right and left.

Slots location debates are often foils for whether Maryland racetrack owners automatically get a big cut of the action. When they're not in the plans, track owners suddenly don't believe in slots. They only want Maryland to have slots if they can profit.

In the state Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller has already seen to it for the third time that a slots bill favoring track owners was passed. But in the House, there's a new twist: Delegates are working on allowing their first committee vote on a slots bill - albeit a very different one than the Senate's.

Having stopped slots so far, House Speaker Michael E. Busch appears to be finally trying to let a slots bill go forward, at least a step or two. But in any case, the House isn't likely to hand slots to tracks, and it likely would put them in a number of Republican areas.

You might ask, what else can the House do? Various local political leaders have already asked that so much of the rest of the state be off limits to slots: Baltimore city, Ocean City and Baltimore, Cecil, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

But of course, the likely purpose of any House bill would be to serve as a snake: a slots bill intended to kill slots if slots' supposed No. 1 supporter, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., can't or won't bother mustering enough votes from within his own party. And maybe in the process, Mr. Busch and House Democrats could somehow slip the "obstructionist" label Republicans have pinned on them.

It would be a risky bet that Mr. Ehrlich's team would rather keep blaming Mr. Busch for stopping slots than support a bill that doesn't enrich track owners and that doesn't keep the parlors out of Republican suburbs.

But it also would be a hypocrisy test for Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Miller and other legislators clamoring for slots as Maryland's all-purpose fix-it. The Senate's bill gives much of the profits to track owners and potentially sticks a couple of parlors each in majority-black Baltimore city and Prince George's County. Well, how about if the tracks don't automatically get slots and they're on your political turf?

Now, of course, such a ploy could badly backfire: House Republicans might just back any bill - on the theory that slots' actual No. 1 supporter, Mr. Miller, would beat Mr. Busch in conference committee and deliver slots.

The game is getting byzantine, and it could even lead to the disaster of legal slots. But keep in mind, it's no longer about slots, their costs or claimed benefits. It's about political cover, real estate and hypocrisy.

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