Some feel duped by Ehrlich's late switch on slots

March 10, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Reporters and lawmakers felt duped last week after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's late-night news conference disclosing his latest slot machine proposal.

Ehrlich handed out a two-page summary of the changes to his plan, including a percentage breakdown of how the profits would be divided among public education, racetrack owners, local governments, horse breeders and gambling addiction services.

On first blush, it didn't appear to be that different from his original plan, except the breakdown of numbers was preceded by the phrase, "net of operating expenses."

When reporters questioned Ehrlich's spokesman after the press conference, he explained that racetrack owners would get 23 percent off the top to run the machines.


Many reporters scurried to their calculators and discovered the amount going to racetrack owners would double to $655 million and the share going to public schools would be reduced from $800 million to $642 million.

But most television reporters were in such a rush to get the story on the evening newscasts they overlooked the fine print.

Legislators who are both foes and friends of the slots proposal said they felt misled.

"Nothing can be taken on face value from the administration any more," said House Majority Leader Del. Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery.

Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's, said he would stick with the governor despite misunderstanding the governor's plan initially.

"I feel that I was obviously used. We've got to be honest with people. I don't think we get anyplace by trying to dupe the public," he said.

Anti-slots lobbyist Minor Carter said he'll be sure to remember the phrase "net of operating costs" when he reports to his clients at the end of the session.

"I'll tell them I've done a good job, 'minus all the bills that I lost.'"

Official finds fault with CareFirst deal

All the clamor about slot machines legislation last week overshadowed one of the biggest stories of the 90-day legislative session.

Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen issued a 350-page report wholeheartedly rejecting the state's largest insurance provider's plan to become a for-profit company and be sold to Wellpoint Health Networks of California.

"I'm very pleased and I think it's a tremendous victory for the citizens of Maryland," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, once a leading local critic of the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield deal.

Larsen found evidence of conflicts of interest and potential bid-rigging in the deal, which would have provided multimillion dollar bonuses for executives.

Now the Maryland General Assembly will begin cracking down on CareFirst's board and Chief Executive Officer William Jews, which are charged with acting in the public interest, Donoghue said.

"In corporate America, that's understandable, but when you're dealing with people's lives and their health you don't go looking for the best deal," he said.

Lobbyist Minor Carter, who represents health-care interests opposed to the deal, described his David vs. Goliath battle waged with less than $10,000.

"We defeated CareFirst on a budget less than what Bill Jews makes in a day," he said.

Ban on intersection cameras shot down

The signal turned from green to red on a bill to ban red-light cameras.

Late last week, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee killed Sen. Alex X. Mooney's legislation to remove cameras at intersections designed to catch red-light violators.

There are no red-light cameras in Washington County, although the city of Hagerstown has considered using them.

The committee is still considering whether to allow police to install more cameras to catch speeding drivers.

Guard member relief bill dies in Assembly

In the same week that members of the 167th Air National Guard in Martinsburg, W.Va., were called to duty, a Maryland General Assembly panel killed legislation to give guard members who are state employees extra retirement credit.

The bill would have allowed out-of-state guard members to receive the same credit enjoyed by state employees who belong to the Maryland National Guard.

Sponsor Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the House Appropriations Committee decided to take the summer to study that and other issues relating to the National Guard.

"I think it's a step forward," he said.

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