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Slouching toward Timonium to be born?

A FLURRY of straws in the political wind could augur for a consensus on slots.

Straws such as:

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Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his lieutenants helping the House Ways and Means Committee as it collects the raw material for a bill that could be offered when the General Assembly convenes in January. Stung by the Assembly's rude rejection of his slots bill last spring, Mr. Ehrlich had promised to leave the matter in the Assembly's hands this time. It wasn't a sustainable or smart position. Governors ought to lead on almost everything, so a more open-minded and even bipartisan stance is welcome.

A poll shows, once again, that a majority of Marylanders would like to see slots at the tracks. This bit of information confirms the public's mixed emotions. One survey shows support. The next finds it dwindling.

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Ultimately, the polls won't or shouldn't matter. Public opinion is one thing, but policy should be based on thorough study and then sold to the voters by political leaders.

The governor has been a model of consistency as he continues to push racetracks as the ideal location for slot machines in Maryland. But other sites may be better, and the governor should relent if a consensus builds around other venues. He might.

Tracks were preferred because he identified them as such during his campaign. The infrastructure of gambling is there, more or less, but it could be created elsewhere if financing is available and sensible. No one wants slots just anywhere, so restricting them to the tracks puts on a limit of sorts. Other limits could be found.

It is safe to say that anything is possible as to locations. Surely there will be ferocious competition not always having to do not with the best deal for Maryland, but with the best deal for some individual or group.

What, for example, if slots were allowed at Rocky Gap, the lovely golf and conference center gasping for financial air? The state stands in a position now of having to bail this project out to the tune of millions a year. Proponents will say slots would do a better job of that.

In the pursuit of data on how best to operate slots in Maryland, House Speaker Michael E. Busch took a trip to the Timonium track the other day. It was information-gathering only, he says, but it looked as if Mr. Busch had put Timonium on the list of venues. Oops.

It's easy to forget that he and Mr. Ehrlich are new at their critically important jobs and sometimes fail to see that everything they do is perceived to have real significance.

This sort of tea-leaf reading will build in the next few months. If Timonium is in the picture, what is the future of Pimlico? Del. Howard P. Rawlings believes slots at Timonium would kill the Baltimore site. It's easier and safer to park and play in the county.

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But black economic development interests and black politicians may want to preserve Pimlico's role. Residents of the nearby Mount Washington neighborhood, who see the track as a barrier against encroaching blight, could join them. Hence, one understands the political allure of slots at the tracks - or slots at this track.

If that's not enough of an interest group parlay, let's think about the loss of the Preakness, which could happen (say those who want slots at Pimlico) unless there are slots at Pimlico. Without a big boost for the races - purses fattened with a share of slots revenue - the track will die, it is said. News of the track's imminent death is older than the imminent birth of slots, but that doesn't mean the threat isn't real.

Oh, does Baltimore County want slots at Timonium? We'll get back to you on that.

Mr. Ehrlich occasionally reports that he's been in Delaware visiting his money and his constituents - a jocular reference to the travels of Maryland slots players and their quarters to Delaware's tracks, where slots produce a bounty for that state.

While he's at it, he could visit the millions of dollars earned in Maryland and deposited at so-called corporate headquarters there. Some of these HQs are no more than mail drops, according to the Court of Appeals.

At the end of the last legislative session, Mr. Ehrlich vetoed a bill that would have closed this loophole - vetoed it in the midst of a $1 billion budget deficit even though it allows $100 million or so in lost revenue every year.

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Look for the governor to reposition himself on this one. No sin there. Re-posturing is the name of this political game.

C. Fraser Smith's column appears Sundays in The Sun.


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