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Marc Fisher

The House Deals Ehrlich at Least One Slots Win

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page C01

Less than an hour after he finally won one in the World Series of Slots, the governor of Maryland was in shirt-sleeves out on his front lawn in Annapolis, heaving snowballs at Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, topping off a snowman for First Son Drew, shouting how-dee-dos to startled passersby and generally yukking it up like a kid who'd just won the big game. I don't think he was filming a TV commercial, but with this guy, you never know.

Gov. Bobby Haircut had good reason to celebrate after Friday's House of Delegates vote to approve slots.

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Forget all that stuff about how the future of Maryland is biotech, brainpower and high-end tourism. The real money, the wizards in Annapolis have decided, is in those quarters and dollar coins that your aunt on Social Security and your unemployed uncle will plunk into thousands of slot machines in Anne Arundel, Harford, Allegany and -- surprise! -- Frederick counties. That's how we'll educate children and pay for local services.

(Good morning, Frederick residents, and welcome to your future. Upon completion of reading this column, you'll receive $15 in chips usable at your new slots palace right near the intersection of Interstates 270 and 70. You folks in Montgomery County don't get chips -- you'd just donate them to charity or something communistic like that -- but the governor will be happy to let you stand on the shoulder of I-270 and count the wrecks in the southbound lanes after last call at the slots each night.)

Even as Gov. Bob Ehrlich's aides were telling reporters that slots could be up and running in nine months, House Speaker Michael Busch was laying down the rules for a 45-day legislative smackdown. No negotiating -- this is the deal, take it or leave it, Busch told Ehrlich and Senate President Mike Miller, whose version of the slots bill might plant slots in Baltimore, Prince George's County and other places that don't want them.

Slots opponents must work for stalemate. "We hope greed prevails and egos rule," says Del. Peter Franchot from Takoma Park.

No politics is as much fun to watch as a state legislature: As soon as slots' one-vote victory came up on the House scoreboard, the dudes from Baltimore leapt out of their chairs, slapping each other, hugging and whooping as if they'd just won the lottery.

Which -- even though the House bill bans slots in Baltimore -- they have. As Busch said, the lobbying on this issue has been more intense than anything else to hit Annapolis in decades. Gambling companies that have spent gobs making this happen will dump a lot more money before the slots palaces finally are sited and built.

"Before this is over, there'll be 20 indictments of local officials on the Frederick site alone," Franchot predicted. (He also foresees the end of the political careers of the three Montgomery legislators who voted for slots: Jean Cryor from Potomac and Sheila Hixson and Henry Heller, both from Silver Spring.)

Remember how when this whole sad saga started, Ehrlich told all these sweet stories about how we needed to save the nice horsies? Funny how nobody talks about the nice horsies anymore. That's because it's become clear that very few people would care if Maryland had a hot year in the glue business, if you get my drift.

So slots became a vehicle for building schools. Who votes against children, right? But with a majority of the House grumbling that it might be morally wrong to make the education of the young dependent on the ruination of the old and the poor, Ehrlich and his helpers in the House had to try yet another tack.

So the House slots bill has a big chunk of money going to local governments for their pet projects, and guess who gets the bulk of that money? Twenty percent goes to Baltimore, 20 percent to Prince George's and 15 percent to Baltimore County. Montgomery, the state's largest jurisdiction, gets 9 percent. Take that, Doug Duncan.

You could hear the governor cackle from a block away when one of his snowballs slammed into Steele's back. Like any politician, Ehrlich loves to win. But a one-vote margin in a legislature controlled by the other party, in a House whose speaker believes the governor is "removed from reality" -- this victory might yet turn out to be illusory.

We could start a pool on it, but that wouldn't be legal in Maryland -- yet.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

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