Mike Miller, leading the way toward higher taxes in Maryland

March 25, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

It's legacy time for Thomas V. Mike Miller, possibly the longest-serving Senate president in all the 50 states.

It's a testament to his skill at rounding up the votes - for himself. He's been able to stay ahead of the bristling egos arrayed before him in the grand Senate chamber since he was first elected president in 1987. He's famous in Annapolis for getting his way. One of those who admire his clout offered this tribute: "Mike Miller could get the votes to burn down the State House."

Now, though, he says he won't run again.

How will he use his power in the remaining years? What will he be remembered for? A senatorial Taj Mahal bears his name. It's the Thomas V. Miller Senate Office Building. It has expansive hallways, a rotunda and posh hearing rooms. So - the honor of having a building with your name on it? Ho-hum. Been there, done that.

The cherry on the cake, apparently, would be legalization of slot machines. He has been after that goal for years. Ask anyone what Mr. Miller stands for, and the likely answer is slots.

But why would a lawmaker want slot machines to be his last hurrah?

Only he knows for sure, of course.

There are those who say he owes the racing industry moguls who poured money into his campaign accounts. At one point, this whispered reasoning was so loud that it brought the Federal Bureau of Investigation to Annapolis looking for a Miller link, a payoff in exchange for a slots-enabling bill. The FBI retired from the search, taking no action.

Some say his quest is not a mystery at all. If nothing else, the man is a practical politician. He's a Democrat who worries that many people in his party can't see why Maryland wouldn't want to collect slots money now traveling to West Virginia and Delaware. Won't slots help to keep taxes low? Won't they help Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to modernize the Maryland tax code?

Up to now, Mr. Miller has been mightily frustrated in his slots campaign. He thought former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was right to champion the issue. But the House, led by Speaker Michael E. Busch, rejected the legislation repeatedly, calling it an outrageous giveaway to the racing interests. With the help of many who wanted to avoid the pathologies associated with gambling, the House said no.

Now comes a new and Democratic governor, and an opportunity for Mr. Miller to achieve his gambling goal.

The governor has been a bit coy on the issue, but he's apparently persuadable. Mr. O'Malley says he doesn't like the idea of financing public policy imperatives - health care or public education - with an unsteady revenue source. He doesn't really like the idea of slots at all, he says. But he would support some limited form of the gambling vice at racetracks.

Only not this year.

He says he won't support any revenue-raising bill this year. He wants a major, comprehensive overhaul of the tax system, which probably needs slots as leverage. Many legislators will want to tell constituents: I voted for the easy gambling money so the bite wouldn't be so severe on the tax side.

Mr. Miller is already helping the governor. The more he bangs his shoe on the president's rostrum, demanding more revenue now, the more reasonable the governor looks. They're a great team.

It's probably not orchestrated. It's an ad hoc final act by a master. Slots may be turning into a stalking horse for the Big One, the overhaul people have mused about for decades in Maryland without really acting on it.

It's going to take State House-burning clout to make legislators do the politically difficult thing on taxes. Slots might not be part of the chemistry - but don't bet on it.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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