Busch approves hearing on slots

Ways and Means panel to meet today to discuss proposal from governor

Order to extend session signed

April 01, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Yielding to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s call for a decision on slots, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday he will allow a hearing today to discuss the fate of the governor's gambling bill.

"We're scheduling a hearing," Busch said after meeting with Ehrlich for the latest in their series of private talks to discuss the governor's proposal to allow slot machines at up to four Maryland racetracks.

Although Busch's decision authorizes a critical meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee with less than a week to go in the General Assembly session, it was unclear yesterday whether the development means a vote is pending.

"Let me know," said Ehrlich, when asked if the speaker told him the plan would come up for a vote. "There's usually a vote after a hearing. I assume that."

But some members of Busch's House leadership pointed out that it's not uncommon for bills to die in the desk drawers of committee chairmen after they are discussed. "If the bill gets a vote in the committee soon, I'd be surprised," said Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - who shepherded Ehrlich's slots plan through his chamber - said he was heartened by Busch's action.

"That's a positive sign," Miller said. "It means that the administration bill will be given the consideration it deserves. I'm not sure it will get a positive vote because of the speaker's lobbying against it."

As the latest maneuvers over the gambling plan took place yesterday, the Ehrlich administration voiced its sharpest displeasure to date over a series of tax proposals and corporate filing fee increases that Democratic lawmakers are considering to balance the budget without slots.

Without directly using the word "veto," Ehrlich and his top advisers indicated they might reject the tax package if the Assembly does not approve a budget that contains money from slots.

"We're not going to sign off on the taxes," Ehrlich said. "It's as clear as day."

Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula said the legislature's rejection of slots would have "serious and dire consequences."

With slots and the budget dominating attention during the Assembly's final days, a House committee vote on Ehrlich's plan would provide a crucial test of Busch's leadership among delegates and the governor's ability to convince lawmakers of the merits of the centerpiece of his fiscal solution for the state.

Ehrlich says slots at tracks would ultimately provide more than $600 million yearly to help make up a budget deficit that is projected to reach more than $1 billion within three years.

Busch has been the staunchest opponent of Ehrlich's slots plan throughout the session, raising questions about whether neighborhoods around Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft tracks can accommodate large slot-machine halls, and whether track owners should be afforded a monopoly to run gambling operations.

The speaker said yesterday he had not lessened his opposition, and does not believe that the slots proposal approved by the Senate last month is acceptable in its current form.

"The only thing I could see passing is something in the area of a major tax increase and a referendum bill," Busch said. "I really believe the bill needs to be studied."

Busch would not say whether he believes the Ways and Means Committee would kill the bill, or would amend it to include a sales tax and a provision putting the slots question to the voters in the 2004 election.

Also yesterday, with the House and Senate failing to agree on a budget, Ehrlich signed an executive order extending the Assembly session beyond its Monday end date if necessary.

The order authorizes a 10-day extension if the slots and budget stalemate continues past midnight on the 90th day of the session. A committee of delegates and senators met for a second time yesterday to try to resolve differences between competing versions of the budget.

While they have reached preliminary agreement on dozens of budget cuts, they have yet to discuss gambling and new taxes.

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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