Speaker Busch's gamble

February 27, 2005

FOR THE FIRST time since the onset of the state lottery in the 1970s, both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly have backed a major expansion of legal gambling. With the House falling in line Friday behind slots - breaking a three-year logjam - a historic but sad juncture seems to have been reached.

What a difference a year makes. In the last legislative session, the House stood firm against slots and approved instead a sweeping tax package to meet the state's long-term structural budget deficit. Its position: Marylanders should share in directly supporting basic government services.

On Friday, though, the House voted for the easy option of slots, a voluntary and highly inefficient tax that entails high social costs and that would be paid disproportionately by low-income and elderly residents.

But after Friday's defeat, many of the most vehement slots opponents were smiling like victors. The vote, as it turns out, was far from the end of the epic political struggle over slots, only the beginning of the next phase, and at least some slots opponents apparently feel well positioned.

The vote was deftly choreographed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch so that the House slots bill - a much more limited plan than the Senate's - would pass by the barest possible margin, just a single vote.

And that enabled Mr. Busch, who has stopped slots so far, to quickly and loudly drop the other shoe. He wasted no time putting both the governor and the Senate president on notice that - given the oh-so-thin margin of victory in the House - it isn't even worth negotiating the differences between its slots bill and the Senate's.

It was theater. Passage of a House slots bill finally lifts a weight from Mr. Busch's shoulders, that being the politically costly label of slots obstructionist. But, at the same time, how could he change anything about the House bill, when that would likely mean loss of slots support in his chamber?

If Mr. Busch holds firm, his take-it-or-leave-it stance is, of course, a straight arm to both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, slots' biggest backer, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who campaigned on bringing slots to Maryland. Beyond the visceral question of who rules Annapolis, it lays bare what's really at stake in the slots standoff: the matter of who ends up with big cuts of this lucrative state monopoly.

There are vast differences between the House and Senate bills, but key is that the Senate bill essentially awards four state racetracks slots licenses while the House would hand out only one. Mr. Busch is essentially telling Mr. Miller and Mr. Ehrlich: Show us your real motive. Is it to legalize slots to raise revenue? Or is it to hand out slots licenses to well-heeled track owners?

Mr. Busch appears to be betting they care most about the latter - thereby stalling slots once more. But then again, his gamble could prove far too cute, and as a result, slots finally could gain a toehold from which to spread their damage in Maryland.

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