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Commentary: Delay of games in latest slots ruling

This week’s decision by the Court of Appeals leaves Maryland’s slots drama with more angles than a pile of coat hangers.

Herewith, an incomplete list of the aforementioned:

SLOTS: The once, future and perhaps forever state of play is delay. The slots issue has been before us since before The Flood. It has the life of vampires. No one can put a stake in its heart.

This week’s decision sends the issue back to Anne Arundel County, though only as to location. The yes or no of slots has been decided. It’s a question of where: Arundel Mills or someplace else. More money will be spent by gaming interests to kill the Arundel Mills site. More money will flow to the lawyers. More Maryland money will flow to gambling meccas in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Anti-incumbent voter catalyst

Money was at the heart of the Maryland court’s ruling. In their wisdom, money issues should not be subject to referendum lest the entire process of lawmaking and budgeting fall into a perpetual loop of frustration and paralysis. If critical matters like spending and taxation could always be taken to the voters, representative government might lose traction.

POLITICS: Of course. What isn’t political? With slots on the November general election ballot in conservative-leaning Anne Arundel, political heads immediately wondered if that would hype turnout there. If it does, the race for governor might be affected.

The slots impasse might well be spun as evidence of governmental failure, drawing even more anti-incumbent voters to the polls in an anti-incumbent year. Would that be a plus for former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.? Slots were his signature initiative, but failure to get a slots bill passed put failure to the signature line. He will argue again that partisan Democratic opposition thwarted him in the assembly. This is true up to a point. The House of Delegates, thought to be the issue’s graveyard, passed a slots bill but the Senate — thought to be Ehrlich’s ally — refused to follow suit.

Gov.  Martin O’Malley, who says slots revenue is unpredictable and thus an unreliable way to pay for public services, has nevertheless supported slots at racetracks. There is really no difference between the candidates on the substance. It has come down to geography and the not-in-my-backyard forces. That part of the referendum could draw more conservative Republicans to the polls. O’Malley immediately welcomed the court’s decision, but this one is probably scored: Advantage Ehrlich.

LOBBYIST/LAWYERS: Alan M. Rifkin, an old Annapolis hand, is identified in The Sun as a representative of the anti-slots neighborhood around Arundel Mills. Rifkin has also been one of the principal spokesmen for racing and slots interests. These interests want slots at Laurel Park. The community, thus, found itself with the kind of high-rolling support that usually rolls right over neighborhoods.

THE STATE BUDGET: David Cordish, the developer who has managed to steer his Arundel Mills slots proposal through the Anne Arundel zoning process, says the delay will cost Maryland hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Not to speak how much it will cost him. And he was the one who put up the required $28.5 million fee. As a businessman, he looks almost statesmanlike in this context.)

Can’t anyone here play this game?

Gov. O’Malley must be feeling the pain. Anne Arundel is slated to be the biggest producer of slots revenue. These games have already been pushed back so far they may not send a dollar to the treasury while O’Malley is governor — if, indeed, he is re-elected.

THE TAXPAYER: Those who thought slots revenue would reduce pressure on taxpayers — and those who had their doubts — must see all of this with a deeply jaundiced eye. It’s reminiscent of what they said about the old New York Mets: Can’t anyone here play this game?

ANSWER: Depends on who you’re talking about and what game you’re talking about. If the name of the game is delay, they play very well.

And if they’re willing to delay and delay and delay it shows you just how much money’s at stake.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.