Will the real obstructionist please stand up

March 20, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

HOUSE SPEAKER Michael E. Busch eventually may be seen as the legislative chess master on slot machines.

His critics are still calling him an obstructionist, but this is just name-calling by people who've lost the game.

Critics said he was standing in the way of democracy, refusing to allow a slots vote by all the House members. What they failed to see was the growing opposition in the House - opposition from delegates whose constituents may like the idea of more money and lower taxes but don't like gambling.

A vote finally was taken on a pared-down bill crafted by Mr. Busch to make it easier for slots opponents to vote yes - largely by removing slots from their districts. He was less accommodating to Republicans because their governor wants the bill. And instead of hitching school finances to gambling, his bill allots the state's take to school construction.

The House bill passed with 71 votes in favor, the bare minimum needed for passage.

Now both the House and Senate have passed slots legislation. Usually in such circumstances, representatives of the two houses would lock themselves in a room and work out the differences. But Mr. Busch won't appoint the so-called conference committee because, he says, compromising - any change in the House bill - would erode support and kill it. It wouldn't break his heart if the bill failed: It's bad public policy, he thinks. Take it or leave it, he says.

The real obstruction, he says, is greed. The Senate bill and its gambling industry backers want more: more money from the slots revenue, more slots parlors, more slot machines, more of everything than they would get in the House bill.

Location is probably the biggest difference between the bills. The House, in consultation with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., picked four locations: Laurel Park, the racetrack in Anne Arundel County; the Lodge at Rocky Gap outside Cumberland; a site near Frederick; and another near the Delaware line.

Governor Ehrlich suggested last week that a few "tweaks" would produce a bill he could sign. The governor, Mr. Busch says, should persuade Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to tweak the Senate bill.

It probably would need more than a nip and a tuck.

There's evidence to suggest that any change in the House bill would simply kill the whole enterprise yet again:

Seconds before the House bill passed, a Republican delegate from Frederick County hung back waiting to see if her "yes" vote was needed. She finally threw her "yes" onto the electronic tote board - not to support the bill, which many in her area probably don't like, but to support Mr. Ehrlich.

A Democrat from Baltimore County, walking out of the House chamber after the vote, said, "If they change a comma, I'm voting `no.'" His constituents may want the bill, but apparently he doesn't. The vote helps him (and other Democrats) in pro-slots districts - one of the speaker's goals.

Days after delivering four out of five votes in Harford County for the bill, Republicans there said they only went along because they thought aspects of the bill would be changed by the Senate. Would the Senate be likely to change the bill to suit these delegates? Would that change alienate some other group?

Delegates in Baltimore City and Prince George's County said they would vote "no" if there were slots parlors in their districts. The House bill has no Baltimore or Prince George's locations. At least two locations in the Senate bill are in the city and Prince George's.

Demonstrating the political fragility of the proposal, the governor himself took various locations "off the table": the State Fairgrounds in Timonium and Ocean Downs near Ocean City.

Mr. Ehrlich also doesn't like the Frederick location, even though five of the six Republicans from that area voted for the Busch bill that puts a parlor in Frederick to capture the money now going to slots in West Virginia.

Proponents of more gambling were noticeably tepid in their support of the bill - proof that party loyalty, not support of slots, produced the needed votes. Chess master Busch knew many Republicans were closer to him on slots than to their party leader.

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

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