ANNAPOLIS – House Speaker Michael E. Busch may have vanquished Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s top priority this General Assembly session, but the Republican chief executive could win on the public relations front.
At the heart of the showdown between two of the state’s three top politicians was a debate about slot machines that lasted nearly to the end of the 90-day session, until a House committee finally spiked the bill.
Ehrlich proposed slot machines as a key fix to Maryland’s budget troubles, but Busch, D-Anne Arundel, engineered their death in the House and imposed tax increases as an alternative.
Now Ehrlich has promised to veto the taxes pushed by Busch and the General Assembly.
“We know how the voters feel,” said Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick. “Right now the voters are pro-Ehrlich, pro-slots and anti-tax increase.”
Ehrlich will take his case to Maryland citizens, beginning a 10-day tour of the state Thursday. Busch, meanwhile, said he would begin his post- legislative period playing golf.
But Busch won this round, said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D- Montgomery, who supported Busch in his drive to block the governor’s proposal to legalize slot machines.
“It makes him the big man on campus in a way,” Barve said. “Let’s understand why (Busch) won this fight. Not because he had more money or experience, he won this thing basically because we sat down and thought through what we were doing.”
Ehrlich retorted that in split government victory is not always marked by the passage of a bill.
“We see things a little differently,” Ehrlich said. “We do not view success as a function of how much government grows . . . We’re measuring our success by how much more efficient we make government.”
Others say neither of the freshman leaders – both took their posts in January – were winners this session.
“This is 100 percent politics,” said political analyst Blair Lee. “Both of them misfired. Ehrlich could have done a much better job selling slots and Busch took the House down a blind alley.”
The only winners are the people, who now have two clear options in Maryland government – both the legislative and executive branches were Democratically-controlled for 34 years before Ehrlich was sworn in – and some folks are overreacting to the natural forces of bipartisan government, Lee said.
Both parties are already setting the stage for the gubernatorial election in 2006, Lee said.
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, considered a potential 2006 Ehrlich opponent, said it is clear that Ehrlich lost big.
“He’s going to walk away from this with no victory at all,” Duncan said. “How embarrassing.”
Citizens, said pro-slots Democrats, now will now be forced to bear significant service cuts.
“The big losers are the citizens of Maryland,” said Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore. McFadden said revenue from the legalized slot machines would have offset cuts likely to hurt the state’s poorest citizens.
Even though much of the governor’s legislative package was dismantled, Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said Republicans came away stronger this session.
“It’s been good for the Republicans, especially because we have the backstop on the second floor” of the State House, Stoltzfus said, referring to the governor’s office.
That backstop’s support is real shaky, Democrats said.
“The governor’s loosey-goosey, ad lib style just doesn’t fly,” said State Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson. “He kind of proved himself unable to handle the issues, especially his own.”
Ehrlich could win the day, however, by flexing his gubernatorial muscle and vetoing a $136 million tax package passed by the General Assembly, Lee said.
“If Ehrlich caves to Busch he’s dead,” he said. “He has to maintain the other philosophy of government, the alternative to Democrats. He understands that.”
Other Democrats said the speaker’s bold move to block slots and hike taxes will haunt the Democrats in the next election.
“The speaker’s been masquerading as a Boy Scout,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. “He needs to maintain that for the next three years.”
Miller may be the only heavyweight to gain from the battles this session, Lee said.
“Miller stands for nothing,” he said. “The only thing Miller cares about is being Senate president. He is not a slave to ideology.”
Both Lee and Ehrlich agreed that partisan government – which led Miller to label this session as “worse than anything I’ve ever seen” — will be dominant for the next three years.
“This has been a left-of-center General Assembly and for the first time you have a right-of-center administration,” Ehrlich said. “You would expect some gridlock.”
In the end, Busch will put the blame on Ehrlich, and Ehrlich will put the blame on Busch and the winner will be picked by the voters, Lee said.
“It’s very healthy,” he said. “The public is going to decide which one is right.” – 30 – CNS-4-9-03