Montgomery County Del. John A. Hurson, chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee, said Ehrlich needs to immediately gain control of the slots debate because the excessive eagerness of interest groups is mucking up the process.
"It's a huge problem," Hurson said. "We are doing this exactly the wrong way. You are seeing a feeding frenzy of people who want to get their slice of the pie."
Hurson even suggested that Ehrlich remove slots from this year's agenda so he can conduct a comprehensive review of gambling issues and determine what is the best way to proceed.
"We need to take some time and figure out how we do this right," Hurson said. "This thing can easily die of its own weight."
But Ehrlich said the scramble for a share of the money won't necessarily hurt his push for the approval of slots. He said that as more groups claim a stake in the initiative, momentum behind his effort could strengthen.
For instance, Ehrlich said, he was pleased at the Legislative Black Caucus' interest in securing a share for minorities.
"Any real or perceived stakeholder in the process is welcome," he said.
`Always a tough fight'
Lawrence A. Klatzkin, a gaming analyst with the investment banking firm Jefferies & Company in New York, said fireworks are common when gambling is discussed by legislators.
"It's always a tough fight," he said. "You're talking about a lot of cash being divided up. It's been a long process in every state and it always involves a lot of politics."
Baltimore City Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a longtime slots supporter, said any discussion involving millions of dollars engenders a great deal of posturing in the General Assembly.
"There's a lot of money to be made," Rawlings said. "I think the important thing is that people who historically have been left out - like women and African-Americans - have to be included in the process. Fairness is going to be one of the issues for me."
But Rawlings said he believes any slots legislation would be in jeopardy if the plan were to allow gambling beyond the four race tracks.
Crenson, the political scientist, said perception of a money grab by slot supporters is confirming the worst suspicions of opponents. That will work against slots both in the General Assembly and in a referendum, should lawmakers leave the matter up to the public.
Even though pro-slots forces will have plentiful cash for an advertising blitz, the spending could backfire, reinforcing an impression of monied interests run amok, he said. Lawmakers, too, could decide to cut out the troublesome middlemen and have slots run by the state.
Let voters decide?
A poll of conducted this month on behalf of The Sun showed that less than half - 48 percent - of registered voters favored slots at the racetracks, and 39 percent were opposed. But two of three Marylanders said voters should decide through a referendum whether to expand gambling - a position at odds with that of the governor-elect and legislators who want the money sooner to plug the budget gap.
"You can see support fading," Crenson said. "I think it's going to go to referendum, and I think it's going to get nasty."
Collins predicts that the state's political leaders will rein in the debate and keep the matter from referendum by tying it to a budget bill. The momentum, he said, remains on the side of slots.
"I think the governor-elect and the General Assembly won't allow boundless greed to prevail," Collins said.
Sun staff writers Tim Craig, Michael Dresser, Chris Guy and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.