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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 6, 2004

General Assembly Journal 2004 - Part 14

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Friday, April 2, 2004

Once again the Maryland General Assembly has been concerned for almost 90 days with a single subject, one that we may AGAIN fail to enact.

I've written on this subject from almost every conceivable angle, except one. I never contemplated the real possibility of slot machines being located in Frederick County.

It was with some surprise that I initially reacted when asked by a Frederick News-Post reporter about what I thought of the possibility of slots in Frederick. We've heard about slots all over the state, but never in Frederick.

Frederick might make sense if you consider the argument that our slots facilities should be positioned to take advantage of Marylanders who currently travel out-of-state to play, and the need to capture revenue from other states.

Clearly, Charlestown Races and Slots is a formidable gaming establishment. Years of building customer loyalty, along with years spent pumping millions into customer amenities, has given them a strong tactical advantage.

So, late this week, in the middle of an ongoing battle over the Governor's legislative agenda, Speaker of The House Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) held an impromptu press conference. He indicated that if Prince George's County and Baltimore legislators really wanted their jurisdictions out of the slots bill, maybe places like Frederick should be considered.

Using the arguments I framed above, Speaker Busch mentioned Frederick as an ideal location. Ideal for several reasons, I suspect. Not the least of which would be the fact that several delegates and senators (mostly members of the Republican Party), who have been consistently loyal towards the Governor's slots plan, would now have to explain that to their constituents.

I have no doubt that Speaker Busch sees this as way to drive a wedge into what should be a solid block of support for Governor Robert Ehrlich. All of the delegation, excepting Senator Alex Mooney and Delegate Joseph Bartlett, have consistently stated their support for the Governor's plan. Del. Galen Clagett ran supporting slots, but objected to the Ehrlich plan last year. I have no idea where he'd be now, especially with Frederick in play.

So, when the reporter confronted me on this, I was caught flat-footed. He actually tracked me down in a Health and Government Operations Committee voting session, so my mind was on anything other than slot machines.

My initial reaction was to suspect that the Speaker was using slots locations as a wedge, hoping to pick off certain delegates who had been on record favoring previous slot locations in the Governor's plan.

Also, my reaction was pretty skeptical. I think I suggested that it would be premature to react to anything the Speaker said about slots, given that the Speaker has had several policy shifts regarding expanded gaming in Maryland.

Now that I've had some time to think about it, I'm guessing that while I was probably right about his real motive, Speaker Busch may really believe that Frederick would make a good location for slot machines.

Unfortunately, the business community would appear to disagree. The size and amenities of the "racino" would be very difficult for a new, smaller scale facility located within 30 minutes of Charles Town to compete with.

The operator of both the Charles Town facility as well as the racino at Dover feels that it would a bad business decision to locate a new facility within a half-hour drive of Charles Town. In fact, both told me that an entrepreneur would never take that kind of risk.

So now we begin the final week of the General Assembly session with major questions remaining unanswered. The budget, while balanced in both the House and Senate versions, has minor differences that must be resolved. We resolve differences through conference committees, and the budget conference committee usually meets over the weekend prior to the final week of session.

Unfortunately, the President of the Senate, Mike Miller (D., Prince Georges/Calvert) is upset about the House tax package. He thinks the slots bill should be voted on before a major tax increase is contemplated. He refused to appoint Senate conferees. No conferees means no conference committee. No conference committee means no budget compromise. No budget compromise means session cannot end without a balanced budget.

The Governor's legislative agenda is in jeopardy on every front. His historic rehabilitation tax credit, immensely popular in Frederick, is in jeopardy in the House Ways and Means Committee.

His faith-based initiative bill is stuck between the House and Senate Committees. His bill to restore the Chesapeake Bay by removing nutrients in sewage treatment plant outflow is stuck in the Senate, and the Chairman of the Environment, Health and Education Committee has made it clear that she plans to sit on the bill.

The Governor's bill to create a new cabinet office for Minority Business Affairs and to change the way minority business preferences are handled are stuck, and a bill to create a cabinet-level office for disability programs has found the same fate.

One of the most vile tactics is the idea that the House and Senate leadership modify one of the Governor's bill so substantially that even the Governor can no longer support the bill. The trick is to then criticize minority party members for not supporting the Governor's own bill, even though he himself will potentially be forced to use his veto pen.

Voters will determine whether the Governor is just unable to get bills passed or if the House and Senate leadership are being overly partisan in their treatment of the Governor's initiatives.

Next week will be my last regular journal entry for this year, and I hope that some of these unanswered questions will be addressed, one way or the other.

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