Ehrlich, Busch pressing hard on slots bill

Foes summon delegates, count potential votes

March 28, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As the General Assembly session nears its end, two of Maryland's most powerful political figures -- the governor and House speaker -- are locked in a rapidly escalating effort to gain votes for their disparate views on slot machine gambling.

Drop-everything calls are arriving in the offices of state delegates at a feverish rate. The requests are similar: The governor would like to see you tomorrow. The lieutenant governor wishes to meet with you. Can you come to the speaker's office, please?

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been summoning delegates of both parties to his office this week, meeting with them for up to 45 minutes, asking them to vote for a slots bill that is sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee. The plan to allow slot machines at four Maryland racetracks is the centerpiece of Ehrlich's agenda; he says gambling revenue is needed to balance the budget.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, is also calling in small groups of delegates, insisting that they say whether they are with him in his effort to delay legalization of slots for at least a year while costs and benefits are studied. The House has approved a balanced budget without slots money, and Busch says the Ehrlich plan contains more questions than solutions.

Ehrlich "is working everybody ... to get the votes," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and slots supporter. "But the speaker has to be dealt with. We can't have House leadership falling apart."

Ehrlich says 75 to 80 delegates in the 141-member House would vote in favor of the slots legislation if given the chance. The governor has called publicly for Busch to allow a vote -- something he has refused to do.

"This was a major issue in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign. It's clearly what the people want," Ehrlich said yesterday. "It's deserving of a vote up or down in the House."

But Busch believes at least 81 delegates would vote against the slots bill. Sources say he is so confident that he is trying to craft an exit strategy that would allow Ehrlich to save face and enable the session to end a week from Monday with all sides claiming victory.

"If I have to pick which vote count is more accurate, I'd have to pick the speaker's, knowing what he is doing," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat.

As the lobbying intensifies, more developments are expected today:

Busch and Ehrlich are to meet this morning to talk about a solution to the slots stalemate. Busch refused to confirm any deals he might offer. "I want to see if there's common ground," he said.

Six days after approving slots legislation, the Senate will debate the issue again, with a chance for a different outcome. Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, has asked for a separate vote on an amendment that links a billion-dollar budget-balancing bill with the slots plan, hoping to unravel a strategy devised by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"Let [slots] rise or fall on its own merits. Don't tie it to the damn budget like that," Della said. "If that amendment were adopted, they would in fact be tacitly voting for slots when in fact maybe they didn't want to be voting for slots."

Miller, a slots supporter who rescued the governor's plan, accused Ehrlich and Busch yesterday of "wasting valuable political capital" on a "turf battle."

"The speaker's getting more shrill than ever," Miller said. "He's very congenial, but he comes up with new reasons every day why he can't support the bill."

The governor could line up a House majority, Miller said, "if the speaker would stay out of it" -- a tactic Miller seldom follows in his chamber on important matters.

As Ehrlich works to build support, he is concentrating on newer members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which would hear the Senate slots bill first.

"We're obviously looking at Ways and Means," said Kenneth H. Masters, the governor's legislative liaison. "That's the first hurdle, but we're reaching beyond that."

So far, the governor and his staff appear to be making little headway.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, a freshman Baltimore County Democrat, spent 45 minutes in Ehrlich's office Wednesday, but said he did not get satisfactory answers about the impact of slots on communities and other issues.

"The governor still seems to think his pristine slots bill is going to be a reality," Cardin said. "Maybe it is, maybe it's not. If we have the right bill, I could vote for it. But we don't have to do it now."

Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the governor did not win his vote during a 20-minute encounter that did not involve side deals or bargaining.

"My concerns were [that] slots wouldn't be enough to fix the deficit," Ramirez said, "and what was his plan for the future? I appreciate the governor taking time out to explain his thoughts."

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