'Groundhog Day'


IN THE 1993 film Groundhog Day, a cynical weatherman, played by actor Bill Murray, relives the worst day of his life over and over until he gets it right. That comedy's remake could be set in Annapolis with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. starring.

Having failed to gain approval of slot machines in the last two legislative sessions, the governor came back on Friday with a third successive shot at passing more or less his same old slots bill.

Admittedly, some details are changed - but they are cynical tweaks to expand slots' support as Mr. Ehrlich maintains his laser-like focus on getting the politics, but not the state's core fiscal problem, right.

Another recycled element here is the real question of whether Mr. Ehrlich even has much interest in bringing slots to life - as opposed to using the issue to bludgeon opponents, led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, as big-time taxers.

Note that even as legislators were briefed Friday on the governor's slots retread, a top aide was saying Mr. Ehrlich didn't have high expectations for success. For the governor, this is not a win-lose script, it's win or blame the state's budget woes on Mr. Busch.

In any case, this year's big pitch is slots for schools. Mr. Ehrlich once sought slots to shore up the state's failing racing industry, then to heal the state structural budget deficit caused by mandated education spending, then to protect Maryland landscapes. Now he's back to schools - vowing to earmark $100 million for school construction (Listening, county officials?) and $50 million to meet the high costs of schools in certain areas (Listening, Montgomery County?).

And even though last year's state Senate slots bill effectively cut Prince George's County's Rosecroft Raceway out of the action, now it's among four tracks that would get them. Never mind that Prince George's officials and ministers oppose slots. From last legislative session to this one, the family of Peter G. Angelos - with his presumed Annapolis clout - acquired Rosecroft.

Save for these updates, this is one tired script. Better instead for Marylanders to learn from what's playing elsewhere. In California, for example, a slots deal that was supposed to bring the state a quick $1.3 billion is now expected to yield just $16 million this fiscal year. In Pennsylvania, slots approval last year has already delivered a constitutional challenge, corruption allegations and concerns that it won't really help schools - even before the machines arrive. In West Virginia, five years of slots has hardly solved the state's budget problems.

And in Virginia, where officials have not dallied with slots but instead last year made a bipartisan deal to raise taxes, the state is enjoying a healthy surplus, rolling back certain taxes and talking about almost $1 billion in new transportation investments.

So what movie do you want to see in Annapolis now? Groundhog Day? The bleak films playing in Sacramento, Harrisburg and Charleston? Or a script of some substance, such as the one showing in Richmond?

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