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May 16, 2005

Random Post-Session Observations

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Since the end of session, I've been spending a good deal of time talking to groups and organizations around Frederick County about what happened when the General Assembly met this year.

I tell people that we go to Annapolis to legislate for 90 days, then come home and explain what we did for next several months. Sometimes those explanations make sense, sometimes not. No big surprise when you consider the things we spend time arguing over in Annapolis.

Here are some examples, and why explaining these things can be so confusing.

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Slot Machines - I've written before about the whole Frederick County/slots debate. House Speaker Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) introduced the idea of Frederick County slots as a way of scuttling the whole slots idea, hopeful that sticking the machines in Republican-dominated counties would peel off Republican support. He never supported the idea of expanding gaming, and he and his staff used every ounce of leverage to deny Gov. Bob Ehrlich his signature initiative.

The Frederick County Commissioners were quick to jump on the anti-slots bandwagon, proposing a zoning ban on gaming facilities. I suspect their indignation was driven, at least in part, by the angry outcry from gambling opponents. One commissioner did relate a personal story of how gaming impacted his life, though.

As I've spoken to groups after session the last two years, the reaction is mixed, to say the least. Some are adamantly opposed to slot machines, while others regularly visit parlors in Delaware and West Virginia.

Recent news reports from Pennsylvania indicate the possibility for a large-scale slots facility just over our northern border near Gettysburg. I thought that the whole Gettysburg community would join historic preservation forces to fight the placement of a slots casino.

I was surprised when some local business and community representatives suggested that a slots venue might actually breathe new life into the battlefield and surrounding businesses.

If it happens, we'll see traffic increase on Route 15 just like we've seen on Route 340 headed to Charles Town, WV. Every single person in those Maryland-registered vehicles in those slots-parlor lots will be adding to the coffers of our neighboring states, building schools, roads, and helping hold down the tax rate for those states.

One myth I'm really sick of hearing comes from anti-slots forces that just have no idea what they're talking about.

I've read in anti-slots literature that the Atlantic City casinos destroyed Atlantic City. A frequent talking point from the StopSlots group is that when the casinos went in, property values everywhere else in Atlantic City went down.

The only person who would make that claim is someone who had never been to Atlantic City, certainly not someone who owned property there in the late 60 's and early 70's.

For the uninitiated, or those who hadn't been to that once thriving beach resort, let me set the record straight.

Atlantic City was once a shining jewel by the sea, with a wonderful boardwalk, shops, restaurants, and a wide beach. Unfortunately, the decline some attribute to gambling occurred 20 years before the first casino opened its doors to the public.

My family and I visited Atlantic City, as we were fortunate enough to spend summer vacations in Stone Harbor, an even lovelier spot at the southern tip of New Jersey.

Atlantic City's decline is actually what drove the community, county, and state to hold referendum on casino gambling! Yes, that's right, in 1975, Jersey shore residents voted to bring in casinos as a way to improve Atlantic City.

A short walk from the boardwalk and casinos puts you in neighborhoods suffering from blight, poverty, and a general lack of economic opportunity. Most of that decline was well underway before Resorts International took over the historic Hadden Hall hotel.

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Hiring practices of the Ehrlich Administration - Remember back in January and February, when this issue was the biggest problem on the horizon? Democratic delegates and senators were clamoring for an immediate investigation, and Joseph Steffan, an Ehrlich appointee, was under scrutiny for supposedly weeding out Democrats in state agencies.

Baltimore's Sun ran a series of columns criticizing Governor Ehrlich for his appointments process, for putting Republicans in high profile positions, and for removing long-serving Democrat bureaucrats from state positions.

House Speaker Busch and Senate President Mike Miller (D., Prince Georges/Calvert) unleashed a quiver of pithy quotes about government run amok, about Capital Hill-style politics coming to Annapolis.

AS if the Democrats own brand of old-fashioned, patronage-based governance was somehow more proper. Only to an idiot! Even the most gullible could see that most of these childish protestations were mere partisan rhetoric, and the loudest voices were the least credible.

A heap of bad legislation followed, since these partisan hacks weren't merely satisfied to read their newspaper coverage. I was actually encouraged by the bevy of bad bills, assuming that some in the leadership must think that Governor Ehrlich had a good chance of being re-elected. Why waste time putting stupid policy in place if it would tie the hands of either potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley or Doug Duncan?

The latest wrinkle is the best from of exposure for this pointless political pandering. Speaker Busch promised a rapid initiation of a fair, public, and thorough investigation. I applauded him for being proactive, for not allowing too much time to transpire before focusing on what really happened.

He promised a bi-partisan inquiry and was intent on beginning at the conclusion of the session.

Well, here we are, more than a month after Sine Die. Recent news reports suggest that Senator Miller and Delegate Busch are having a disagreement over starting this inquiry. Mr. Busch still seems to want to get something done quickly, while Mr. Miller is content to let time pass.

I actually laughed out loud at Senator Miller's explanation for the delay. He, the powerful and controlling Senate president, claimed that the Legislative Services staff attorney that would guide the probe was busy analyzing bills from the session.

If Mike Miller wanted to, he could force the color of the grass around the State House to be changed. The idea that one lawyer, one out of many, is the ONLY person to help lead this investigation is so silly it almost defies reality.

The real reason for the delay in investigating Governor Ehrlich's administration is twofold.

First, the Democrats should be very concerned about what a far and impartial inquiry into hiring practices will yield about their own gubernatorial hiring and firing history. I suspect that someone is carefully reviewing past administrations to find the rock-covered snakes.

Second, the longer it takes to start this inquiry, the closer the election cycle gets. Baltimore Mayor O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Duncan both want to include frequent shots at Governor Ehrlich over this issue, so Mr. Busch's idea of a timely, impartial investigation doesn't suit their partisan political purpose.

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All this political wrangling could cause a guy to question why he's doing this. Fortunately for me, I get to intersperse these frustrating moments with some truly inspirational experiences.

This past week, I hosted the Brunswick Elementary School Fourth Grade on a tour of the State House. I met the group on Lawyers Mall, and was able to bring them into the House Chamber.

I had spoken to these same great kids the week before at their school. We talked about making the laws that guide our state, and they even got to experience a budget debate using students in a role-playing exercise.

So even if I wonder about the intellect and motivation of current legislators, looking at those Brunswick fourth-graders, I feel supremely confident about the future of Maryland politics.

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