Annapolis mystery: Who killed slots this time?

April 17, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

POLITICS IS SO much fun and so full of surprises.

Consider this: The greatest supporter of slot machine gambling in Annapolis this year was House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Yes, that Mike Busch, the slots opponent and favorite whipping boy of those who believe slots would cure anything that ails the great state of Maryland.

Slots, we are told, would save horse racing. They would preserve whatever state property has not been sold secretly to political insiders and contributors. Slots would relieve the citizen of responsibility for a mammoth public education program. They would cure the common cold.

Speaker Busch has opposed pie in the sky. He's too prudent and conservative to like the idea of paying for education or social programs or anything else with an unstable revenue source. But, bowing to those who called him an undemocratic obstructionist, he compromised and led his balky House of Delegates to pass a bill.

Whereupon Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller turned up their noses. They began to blame Mr. Busch all over again for refusing to compromise. They imagine no one is paying attention.

They refused to believe Mr. Busch's assertion that any change in the House-passed bill would be a deathblow. Any compromise with a more expansive Senate bill would kill the whole thing, the speaker said.

"If they change a comma," said a Democratic member after the House vote, "I'm voting no." The support of Republican delegates from Frederick and Harford counties was surely in doubt after local zoning authorities began to consider banning slots. Many other counties had already said no to slots.

So why didn't the governor and the Senate president take the bill - take the foothold it offered - and figure out a way to make it work? Slots would be like building a bridge: You don't build half a bridge. With the supports in place, you finish the job even if it costs more. Even opponents of the bridge will help.

So why didn't the governor do that? And why didn't Mr. Miller help him? Legislators and lobbyists offered an array of deliciously political and practical theories:

Money: Maybe the slots fever is peaking. A report from New York has the take there running $100 million below the hoped-for $240 million. In addition to the gambling urge, the amount of money raised by a slots program is a function of how many machines are in play. The House bill called for about 9,500, while the Senate wanted 15,500. If the urge is fading, more machines will be needed to satisfy the high-rolling advocates.

Testosterone: Mr. Miller's power had been challenged. Nobody says "my way or the highway" in Annapolis, he said. He was right to protect the concept of compromise, but compromise was imbedded in the House bill. It was a compromise.

On a more personal level, legislators and others said, Senator Miller couldn't allow Speaker Busch to win. Some say Mr. Miller hopes the slots issue will hurt Speaker Busch politically, maybe even lead to his defeat. Then Mr. Miller would be the undisputed State House power broker.

The poison pill: Governor Ehrlich and Mr. Miller say the House bill was crafted to fail. Maybe so. But there's a problem with that theory.

If the House bill was toxic, the governor helped to make it so. He vetoed some of the proposed slots locations and accepted others. Then he urged members of the GOP House caucus to vote for it. Surely he hoped the bill would get better in the compromising process that didn't occur. Nevertheless, Mr. Ehrlich said he'd rather have the House bill than nothing.

The election of 2006: Mr. Ehrlich wins either way. He would get his bill or he would have the unpassed bill for a bludgeon against the Democrats. Mr. Busch may already be cemented into the public consciousness as the Darth Vader of slots. It's a bumper-sticker world. Fooling most of the people most of the time may be getting easier.

But just for the record: Speaker Busch produced a slots bill. The governor and his ally, Mr. Miller, said, "No thank you."

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

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