WITH PREPOSTEROUS claims, shameful invectives, bully talk and seat-of-the-pants math, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. are pulling almost every political stunt in the book to try to ram slot machines into Maryland. As Mr. Ehrlich lunges for numbers and details to pencil into a bill he has yet to produce, Mr. Miller -- point man for racing and gambling interests that have plopped more than a half-million dollars into a campaign-fund committee he heads -- is leading the charge. It's slots or fiscal doomsday, says the Senate president, urging his fellow lawmakers to follow the governor in a sloppy dash to pass something, anything, in the coming weeks -- and never mind how it might change the face of the Free State in the coming years or decades.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch -- whom Mr. Miller and Mr. Ehrlich keep showering with insults -- is working with a growing group of legislators to present a budget that assumes no slots revenue for at least a year. It would achieve balance with tax-loophole closings, some program cuts and perhaps an increase in the alcohol tax. We know Mr. Ehrlich says he will veto any tax, but why an alcohol tax increase? He has yet to explain his objection.
Mr. Ehrlich also has resorted to using children as political hostages, warning that Thornton Commission school aid, designed to help poorer areas of the state, won't be forthcoming without slots. He's breaking his word: During the campaign he promised children's welfare advocates that Thornton funding would not be linked to slots. An Ehrlich spokesman agreed that the governor did make the promise but said that without slots "it might not be the Thornton we know today," because his promise not to raise taxes takes precedence. Funding Thornton may be a challenge; but fuzzy claims of enormous slot machine revenue are hardly a solid financial foundation for public education. At the same time Mr. Ehrlich is saying Thornton school money is in jeopardy, his slots-pushers -- including former House speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. -- are trying to entice rural lawmakers with talk of more state aid for their school districts if only they will vote for slots.
Adding to all the madness -- and subtracting from whatever the state's take might be -- is talk of sweetening the pot for racetrack owners by eliminating $350 million in one-time licensing fees that Mr. Ehrlich once thought of as a budget plug. At this point, the owners appear to be calling the shots for the governor. Then there are the hints to other lawmakers -- and casino lobbyists now coming out of the wings -- that additional slots sites and full-blown gambling houses could be coming to a district near them. For minority concerns, slots backers are trotting out African American athletes and business leaders to sing the praises of big-time gambling and to dangle partnership possibilities.
It's a grotesque scene, with the gambling interests playing fast and loose with the governor and certain lawmakers to make Maryland financially dependent on games of chance. It's also getting late in Annapolis; the legislature must pass a budget bill by March 31. The frantic rollout of a welcome mat for slot machines is the wrong way for Maryland to address its financial problems.