Upping the ante on slots once again in Annapolis

October 07, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Looks like Gov. Martin O'Malley's slot machines proposal is in trouble, but what else is new? This slots issue is the legislative version of eternal life. It's always on life support, but it never dies.

So here's a question: Are slots the big tease of the governor's plan for raising $1.7 billion? Does he really need slots this year?

The answer is no - and yes.

First, the "no." Projections show the slots money arriving slowly at first, a year or so down the pike. The big money the governor really needs would come from sales and income tax increases. That would start to flow Jan. 1 if the General Assembly convenes in special session and passes the governor's legislation.

Then why is Mr. O'Malley grasping the slots nettle? Why would he do that when he knows his bill might not pass in the slots-averse House of Delegates? Why would he risk a defeat that would undermine his authority?

Here's the "yes" part of the answer, the part that explains why he's offering the bill: He's doing it for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Mr. Miller has made himself into Maryland's biggest slots advocate.

Mr. O'Malley has no choice but to play the game. It is widely conjectured that Mr. Miller will not be a team player if slots are not on the agenda.

And if he is not a team player, the governor's very ambitious tax package is in a lot of trouble.

That trouble is explained in an assertion attesting to Mr. Miller's control over his house and its 46 members: "Mike could get a majority to burn down the State House."

This is a tribute to Mr. Miller's skill as a gatherer of votes and pleader of his case, and his willingness to direct political pain and pleasure where they are most effective.

No one doubts that he sees slots as a no-brainer for the Democratic Party. They would yield - in time - lots of money, as much as $500 million a year, money the General Assembly does not have to ask for from the taxpayer. In the face of a prodigious tax bite, some taxpayers will want to see some sympathy in the form of a slots bill.

Others think slots are an abomination. More gambling would only undermine responsibility for supporting government. People hear about big money pouring in from slot machines or racetracks or whatever, and they begin to think all government's needs have been met.

Put House Speaker Michael E. Busch in that category. He doesn't like gambling any more than he did four or five years ago, when he started killing former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots bills.

Moreover, the House, by inclination, is a more democratic body. It's larger (147 strong) than the Senate, and ramming important bills through to passage is not as easy as it has seemed to be in the other chamber. Prospects for passage are slim without a speaker pushing for it.

Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Busch, despite his reservations, shepherded a slots bill to passage three years ago. He succeeded against the opposition of Republican and rural legislators who knew their constituents did not want slots in their counties. That opposition will be greater without a Republican governor.

Moreover, Governor O'Malley heretofore has been less than fiercely determined to get slots into operation. As a matter of policy, he has said, slots are not a good way to raise money for purposes valued by the citizenry. If the state values public education, why would its funding be left to the uncertainty of gambling revenue?

Slots money, on the other hand, may be invoked as a lifeline for many worthwhile causes, from textbooks to the horse racing industry. All of these interests might be thought of as the slots lobby, and their efforts could help with the overall package. The arithmetic may be clear in a few weeks.

But what if slots fail? Where will that leave the governor's package with Mr. Miller?

By that time, despite his reservations, the governor may want slots as much as the Senate president does. In the event of failure, he might employ another State House bromide: "I fought like a tiger." He might even mean it.

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

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