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June 18, 2007

Political Issues Deficit Disorder

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Okay, it's too hard to focus on just one aspect of the cornucopia of political news spilling out, especially the news from Annapolis. Instead of one long analysis of one issue, my attention this week will wander over a bumper crop of fun, ironic, and pathetic stuff.

First, we need to ride the way-back machine to 2004/2005. Gov. Bob Ehrlich replaced approximately 300 at-will state employees with his own political appointments. These were senior and mid-level workers who were filling "political" jobs; and, according to estimates, there were more than 7,000 of these jobs.

Several disgruntled ex-employees turned to their stewards in the legislature, especially the two legislative leaders, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch. Since these two figure prominently in the next several paragraphs, we'll call them both "Musch," and treat them as one amorphous political entity.

Armed with a couple of complaints, Messrs. Musch rallied the Democratic Party faithful together in Annapolis. Quicker than you can say "Bob's your uncle" (sorry Cliff), Messrs. Musch created the Special Committee on Employee Rights and Responsibility, ostensibly to protect all state employees from political favoritism following a gubernatorial election.

Some of the best outrage came right out of Frederick. Del. Galen Clagett was oft quoted on the evils of the Ehrlich Administration's hiring practices, and his pithy-quote machine was working overtime, spewing old fashioned, Mayberry-style comments about those involved.

Surely you remember the Prince of Darkness, Joe Steffen. Mr. Steffen was assigned to several agencies to look at worker efficiency, and while his personal style may have left something to be desired (he had a Grim Reaper statue on his desk), nothing he did has been proven to be illegal or improper. Bad taste and mean-spiritedness are not illegal in Maryland politics, at least not yet.

So, after a year and a half, more than a million dollars, and contractual legal talent (???), the Special Committee suggested a number of protections to keep hard-working, qualified employees from being terminated for purely political reasons.

The one thing this esteemed Special Committee failed to find is any evidence (at all) that Governor Ehrlich violated the law in any of the firings conducted under his administration.

So, imagine the surprise when WBAL, WJZ, and the Washington Times reported that Maryland Administrative Law Judge Susan Sinrod recently ruled that Maryland Secretary of Transportation John Porcari violated the law in his firing of Gregory Maddalone from his job in the Office of the Secretary.

Judge Sinrod held that Maddalone's firing was a violation of both his 1st and 14th Amendment rights. Secretary Porcari, through a spokesman, denied violating the law in his decision to fire Mr. Maddalone.

Both President Miller and Speaker Busch were "unavailable for comment." These two guys can find a microphone in the middle of the Mojave Desert; and they could root out a reporter in the middle of the Million Man March. The fact that they were unavailable for comment means that they don't want to have to react to the obvious hypocrisy of attacking Bob Ehrlich for doing absolutely nothing wrong while Governor O'Malley's top cabinet pick has just been found guilty of breaking the law.

Only in Annapolis.

And speaking of the Capitol City, slots are back, in a big way! The other day, the Maryland Jockey Club announced drastic purse reductions due to low revenues from state racing venues.

This situation has been increasing in seriousness since Delaware and West Virginia authorized slots parlors at horse tracks. Once again climbing in the way-back machine, Bob Ehrlich predicted this scenario in 2002, and tried for four years to convince the legislature to approve a limited introduction of slots, first to benefit the equine industry, and then expanding the numbers to put some of the revenue into school construction.

Lower purses in Maryland means lower rated horses running in our races, and the downward spiral continues. Delaware legislators are considering adding sports betting to their casinos, and West Virginia voters in some location have authorized table games, although Charles Town was not one of them.

These additional gaming choices means that both Delaware and West Virginia will continue to add bettors, while Maryland horse tracks will continue to decline in both amenities and patrons.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has been fairly lukewarm on the whole slots issue. He's been quoted suggesting that slots should be considered as a part of a larger solution to the looming structural deficit.

Now the governor indicates the problem is more serious and urgent than was originally considered. Clearly, the recent Jockey Club action is an impetus, and the general decline of horse racing adds pressure.

Governor O'Malley believes he can strike a compromise with the aforementioned Messrs. Musch, even though Speaker Busch still appears to harbor concerns and general reluctance towards slots as a solution. The governor's compromise may include local referenda, something many of Speaker Busch's loyalists like as a defense against overriding community objections.

Local voter initiatives will probably doom any slots bill in Annapolis, and even if it were to pass, a slots parlor will have trouble passing any local referendum vote.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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