Weighing the odds for Maryland
House Speaker Michael Busch discusses the state's budget deficit and why he believes putting slot machines at four racetracks is not good public policy
Speaker Michael E. Busch presides of a session in the Maryland House of Delegates last week in Annapolis. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin / March 6, 2003)
First elected to public office in 1986, Busch is a Baltimore City native who has served on the Judiciary Committee and the Economic Matters Commitee -- chairing that panel.
In this session of the Maryland General Assembly, Busch has become the most visible opponent of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal for legalizing slot machines at three racetracks in Central Maryland -- Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County -- and at a track proposed for Allegany County.
Besides helping to reduce a $1.3 billion budget deficit, the revenues from these machines, Ehrlich contends, would be used to revitalize the state's horse racing industry and finance the Thornton Commission legislation adopted last year by the Assembly.
The legislation seeks to reduce inequities among the state's public schools. It would pump $1.3 billion into schools by 2007.
With three weeks before the legislature's session ends on April 7, Busch explains his position and reacts to Ehrlich's charge that his opposition is race-based.
Why, specifically, Mr. Busch, do you object to slots in Maryland?
It's not a good public-policy initiative. Many people call it a gaming tax -- and it's the most regressive of all taxes, because the people usually who can least afford to lose the money are the ones who are involved in it.
You ought to take pause anytime when they have to put in money for addiction. To tell people that something's really good, and if you get addicted to it, there's money in it for help. When you're dealing with that, you ought to take pause and wonder if this is the right direction for the government to go.
By getting in the industry of gambling itself, there's the idea of creating what really are two monopolies: one for the owners of Pimlico and Laurel, and the other for the owners of Rosecroft. They become multimillionaires by default. It guarantees the businesses will never lose money, because the state becomes dependent on the money, as does anyone else, and they're going to guarantee that those businesses are going to be profitable.
Also, the way the plan's put together, even if you like slots, it doesn't seem to have any specific goals or objectives. Right now, 26 days before the end of the session, we don't have a complete piece of legislation. We don't have the language on the new proposed revenue splits. We don't have any understanding of the revised revenue projections.
Had Governor Ehrlich presented a detailed plan in January, would you have supported it?
Look, I'm a pragmatist -- as well as someone who tries to get as much information before I make a decision. That's just the way I am since I've been in the legislature.
The more questions he could have answered, the more favorable it would be viewed by the legislature. I actually think I am in the minority -- as far as the issues surrounding the legislation are concerned.
Yes. There's lot of people who came here, both Democrats and Republicans, who wanted to support the bill -- and the state's economic times drive it to make it even more appealing.
Having said that, I still do not believe that they will make as much revenue as they think. The idea of making $350 million -- it's a significant amount of money -- but in the overall course of things, it's not so great an amount that you would want to go down the road of promoting gambling as an industry in the state.
But Maryland already has gambling. It's called the lottery?
Yes, we do have gambling, but there's a difference: With lotto, you have mom-and-pop stores, convenience stores and local Alcohol Beverage Control stores. I would venture to say that all those stores would still be there even if they didn't have the lottery. There's basically a level playing field: Everybody has the same opportunity to get a lottery machine and participate -- and they get 5 percent of the revenues.