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C. Fraser Smith: Dithering on the brink

Oh, for the days of Irv and Peter and Marvin. Oh, for gatekeepers and disciplinarians and machines.

Marvin Mandel, the master politician, was governor of Maryland until various “issues” had him folding pillow cases in a federal prison. The late Irv Kovens, the businessman and bankroller of Marvin and others, had an incarcerating sojourn for issues related to Marvin’s issues (you could look ’em up.)

And the late Peter O’Malley, leader of the Democratic political organization in Prince George’s County, brought common-sense discipline to the table.

These men, back in the day, could make things happen. They passed out patronage, but they also made arguments on the merits. Imagine that. With them in the ballgame, there would be no dithering on the brink of something like a special legislative session on gambling.

Which brings the focus once again to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a gambling doubter. He’s said to be trolling for votes even as we speak. He’s called in various sub-leaders to see if there’s any appetite at all for interrupting vacations to vote on a casino at National Harbor or for table games, each of which might jack up the gambling take in Maryland. Insiders wonder if he’s got any bait on his line.

A gambling skeptic

The need for votes in such matters can lead to special moments in the life of otherwise lowly back- or middle- or front-benchers, anonymous toilers in the legislative process. Powerless most of the time, their votes suddenly become coin of the realm.

Legislative lore holds that judgeships, bridges, community centers and you name it are suddenly found to be worthy projects. It’s been called vote trading, and not in a loving way, by political scientists and reformers. It’s been called reality or the democratic process by others.

When various big issues arose in the past, like sports stadiums built with public money, it is said that a lot of roads got built around Maryland.

Who knows if such opportunities are available to Speaker Busch now or if Gov. Martin O’Malley would offer them.

One clue: The discussions continue even after a special work group declared the issue dead.

I have not spoken to Busch recently on this matter. But he’s always been a gambling skeptic. Probably still is. I’ve agreed with him because I think gambling reduces the willingness of people to pay for government.

Why should we, some will say, when you’ve got all that gambling money? Truth is, there will never be enough of that money. Surely, the same was said of the lottery.

Merits vs. dark arts

Here are the arguments Busch is hearing. They come from the pro-gambling world, but I’m guessing they’d be made by Irv and Marvin and Peter.

-It’s going to be tough for you to explain the loss of 8,400 temporary and permanent jobs and $1.1 billion (give or take) in lost revenue to the state.

-Baltimore’s entry in the gambling world, Caesars, will be hurt if you don’t act. Caesars needs table games. The National Harbor site is less an issue for David Cordish, developer of Maryland Live at Arundel Mills, than Caesars will be. Caesars needs table games and, perhaps, a break on the state tax. Are you listening, Baltimore delegates?

-If there’s no action, slots will dominate the next legislative session and become a major issue in 2014. Actually, gambling will never not be an issue in Annapolis. It’s an omnivorous issue, ever alert to spread its tentacles. If you think there’s more to governing than slots, this is a grim prospect.

-Surrounding states continue to draw the Maryland gambling dollar, something National Harbor and table games might help to end.

Busch and O’Malley have never seemed like practitioners of the dark arts of bridges and judgeships, preferring to make the case on the merits. The governor, it must be said, has been leaning toward the special session pragmatic.

The “merits” are not what they used to be.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.