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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 6, 2003

General Assembly Journal - Part 17

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

April 2-4, 2003 Finally, All Is Revealed!

After months of prognostication, expectation, and frustration, we now know the fate of slots. On Wednesday (April 2), the House Ways and Means Committee shot down Governor Bob Ehrlich’s signature legislative initiative on a vote of 16-5.

The Governor (and all of his targeted lobbying) was only able to get 4 Republicans to vote for the bill. Del. Joe Bartlett (R., Frederick), who campaigned against slots all summer, lived up to his commitment to vote against an expansion of gambling, as did freshman Republican Leroy Myers (R., Washington/Allegany), the guy who knocked off Cas Taylor.

In the final version of the Governor’s bill, slots were only going to generate anticipated revenues of $15 million the first year. That money would have come from the license fees, not from money spent by gaming consumers. The real revenue stream, expected to be $400-600 million per year, wasn’t going to be realized until the FY ’05 budget. The history is old and tired, and I won’t bore you, other than to tell you what I’ve told you previously. The Speaker of the House (Michael Busch D., Anne Arundel) and the Governor found themselves at opposite ends of Annapolis’ biggest fight of the session.

Speaker Busch made stopping slots his top priority. He associated himself with all of the forces arrayed against gambling, including those with strong religious, moral, and social objections. His trips to churches to meet with pastors and opponents are legend. He rode around like a white knight, using his power and prestige to serve as the anti-slots movement’s most visible spokesman.

He met almost daily with the print media, walking down the back stairwell to the pressroom, surrounding himself with the whole State House media crowd to joke about Governor Ehrlich’s slots proposal. Any wonder why the reporters all seemed to reflect his view favorably?

On the other hand, Governor Ehrlich limited his formal exposure to the print media, even going so far as to hold one press conference in the late evening to deny the print media a chance to get the story in before their nighttime deadlines.

Governor Ehrlich always said he was against the "tax and spend" historical approach to state government. He always, at every campaign stop, criticized the last General Assembly for approving the Thornton bill funding without identifying the necessary revenue to pay for it. He was very consistent, and he stayed on message.

Voters had a clear choice in the vote for governor. Mr. Ehrlich favored slots as a way to pay for Thornton, (Kathleen) Kennedy-Townsend was opposed to gambling in any form. Mr. Ehrlich made clear his strong objection to increasing taxes, and I heard him state that he would rather reduce state government than increase taxes on the backs of hard-working Marylanders.

So the voters spoke. On November 5th, Maryland voters elected Bob Ehrlich, clearly favoring his approach over Ms. Kennedy-Townsend’s.

In my district, it wasn’t even close! In my hometown of Brunswick, where Democrats still out-number Republicans, Mr. Ehrlich convincingly beat Ms. Kennedy-Townsend. The message was impossible to misinterpret, even for the most jaded political insider. Bob Ehrlich’s message was clear: Control the cost of government, and rely on new, non-tax forms of revenue to pay for new initiatives.

So, we come back to Annapolis and the current day. Speaker Busch is gloating over his "victory." Governor Ehrlich is trying to put a happy face on a sad outcome, and President of the Senate Mike Miller (D., Prince George’s) is looking to avoid being blamed for the final consequences.

Speaker Busch, in scuttling the Governor’s bill, will only be gloating temporarily. Since the costs of Thornton escalate exponentially over the next few years, and given that slots could have produced several hundred million dollars, we now face some very difficult choices. Speaker Busch is pushing for a state sales tax increase in addition to the state property tax, HMO premium tax, and corporate and business taxes.

Speaker Busch knows that Governor Ehrlich plans to veto that tax package. The Speaker hopes to force the Governor into the planned veto so the Governor can be blamed for the cuts that will be automatically triggered by that action. I see that as a flawed strategy.

Statewide polls show that a strong majority of Maryland voters feel the same way today that they did back in November. They STILL think that we should manage government within our means, and avoid tax increases.

My biggest criticism of this whole mess is of the Speaker and his leadership "hacks." All along, they have fooled the press and the public into believing the Governor was wrong to propose slots. They used the most divisive, frightening language to sway public opinion.

I talked about Peter Franchot in an earlier Journal, so you know of his slots hypocrisy. The April 4th Baltimore Sun demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Speaker and the Democrats across the board.

Speaker Busch has described his conditions for an ACCEPTABLE slots bill. He wants to see competition for the licenses. He wants to limit the number to 2,000 machines per location. And he wants to include tourist destinations in considering where to place the slot machines.

Maybe you missed it. He laid out his "acceptable conditions!" This is the same guy who just spent the last 90 days and HUGE political capital to stop slots at any cost. Now we’re going to look at locations that encourage tourists, not just horse tracks. I’ll bet those poor pastors feel foolish now.

Maybe the Speaker and the Democratic leadership will want to expand this concept beyond Prince George’s County and the Inner Harbor. Maybe he’ll want slots at Antietam to pay for tourism services. Maybe slots can be installed in Frederick’s Church Street Parking Deck, with a coin return feeding directly into the Tourism Center next door.

No one wants to see us NOT improve public education. No one wants to see popular programs cut or State workers lose their jobs.

Unfortunately, the voters of Maryland have already weighed in on this question. They voted for a Chief Executive who offered to improve education through slot revenues, not tax increases. They will expect their voices to be heard, and they will expect their choice to be honored.

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