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It's Democrat vs. Democrat in latest slots fight

The Baltimore Sun

And so it begins, the 2008 version of preparing to elect a Republican governor in a liberal, Democratic state.

The dispute this time? Comptroller Peter Franchot takes up the anti-slots cudgels against Gov. Martin O'Malley. The public struggle could weaken the Democrats and embolden Republicans, who historically have fared best in Maryland when the Democrats are split. It's happened before - most notably in 1966 with the election of Spiro T. Agnew.

Split they are as of last week, when the two Democrats launched salvos of the sort usually reserved for campaigns against the GOP.

When the Democratic governor and the Democratic comptroller don't agree on an issue as important as slots, and when the comptroller takes his opposition on the road, you have more than a split. You have a rupture. It's what happens when you combine ambition, the opportunity for attacking a weakened opponent, and a big stage.

Mr. O'Malley finds himself in political jeopardy caused by the need to raise taxes - and Mr. Franchot sees an opening. It's the kind of internal conflict not seen in Maryland politics for many years; good Democrats usually wait their turn.

But the political reality is not the most important ingredient in the split. The character of the state, the tone of its politics and the stability of the state treasury are at issue as well.

As Mr. Franchot sets out to defeat the slots referendum slated to appear on this November's general election ballot, he says accelerated biotech development and closing tax loopholes would close the $600 million budget hole. The O'Malley administration says the biotech avenue is being pursued with vigor, and that loophole closing, while important, won't solve the problem.

Mr. O'Malley reluctantly endorsed the initiative as he was attempting to close the budget deficit. Some members of the General Assembly agreed to support the tax increases after they saw that slots were part of the tax package.

Slots revenue - though no one really knows how much there will be or when it will begin to flow - is widely seen now as the only politically acceptable source of new money.

Thus, once again, we are about to witness a scramble to make slots the saving grace of any number of public interests, from racing to health care to public higher and secondary education. The hoped-for money will be spent over and over by every conceivable interest group - in their imaginations. There won't be enough to go around, of course, but hope could help to build a pro-slots majority.

The governor must now build a pro-slots coalition. He promises vigorous support, but he did himself no favors when he called slots "morally bankrupt." His position has always been vulnerable to the kind of assault now coming at him from his own party. He's tried to be on both sides of the issue: He quite properly observes that gambling is a poor way to underwrite essential state services - but he says he can live with slots at racetracks.

Even without Mr. Franchot's opposition, the slots issue loomed as a test for a governor whose popularity and job approval ratings were already in negative territory. Having had to raise taxes to get the budget in line, Mr. O'Malley earned the scorn of those who see higher taxes as a money grab by the state.

Mr. Franchot, who should know better, seizes the money-grab theme. He says the governor and General Assembly should not have raised taxes - though again, he's less than convincing with his own solution.

Until recently, his challenge seemed to be a way of claiming the populist banner ahead of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, with whom Mr. Franchot seemed to be competing for governor in a race well down the road - 2014 or so. With Mr. Gansler relatively muted, the comptroller may steal a march. Mr. O'Malley's advisers believe Mr. Franchot's goals are still long term.

As the slots campaign begins, Mr. O'Malley may be counting on the support of those who oppose his tax policy - recognizing that there might even higher taxes if slots fail. Alternatively, the gambling initiative is opposed by an important group of Democratic opinion leaders: black ministers.

The governor's opening strategy appears to focus on painting Mr. Franchot as a hypocritical opportunist who never saw a cheap shot he wouldn't take.

"The comptroller has had the wonderful luxury of sitting back and doing nothing to help us restore fiscal responsibility," Mr. O'Malley said last week.

Said a spokesman for the comptroller: "It's highly unusual for a sitting governor to attack another statewide official, especially a member of his own party."

As if it were "usual" for a sitting comptroller to attack a governor. Especially a member of his own party.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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