Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. lost the most critical legislative showdown of his administration so far yesterday as a House committee crushed his bill allowing slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.
The vote was a devastating setback for Ehrlich and a clear-cut victory for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who rallied House Democrats to oppose the top legislative priority of the Republican governor.
After the 16-5 vote in the House Ways and Means Committee, Ehrlich's chief spokesman conceded defeat but took a hard line on future budget decisions - insisting that spending cuts, including to public schools, are the alternative, rather than tax increases.
"At this point, the governor is certainly not going to be wasting his time on what clearly is a predetermined outcome," said communications director Paul E. Schurick. "We move on."
Echoing previous administration statements, Schurick said the governor would not actively work for slots for the remainder of his term - though that leaves open the possibility of other lawmakers pushing for expanded gambling on their own next year.
"There's no possible scenario where we would come back next year and support a slots program," Schurick said.
Instead, Schurick said Ehrlich would begin planning a budget for 2004-2005 with no tax increases and severe spending cuts that would affect everything from state employees to the education formula crafted by the Thornton Commission.
"Local government aid is going to be decimated," he said. "The Thornton Commission is all but a thing of the past at this point."
The governor's legislation would have allowed 3,500 slots at each of three Central Maryland racetracks - Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft. Another 1,000 machines would have been permitted at a new track to be built in Allegany County.
The administration estimated that a slots program would raise $700 million for education when all of the machines are up and running. Ehrlich presented the bill as the cornerstone of his plan to deal with Maryland's growing gap between spending and revenues, but the legislation was hampered by the fact that it would do little to help balance next year's budget.
The thumping Ways and Means vote was an impressive display of Busch's legislative muscle in his first session as speaker. Of the committee's 15 Democrats, only Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis supported the legislation. The Republicans split 4 to 3 in favor.
By contrast, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller managed to eke out a four-vote margin when the measure passed the Senate almost two weeks ago.
The House vote was not so much a rejection of slot machines as a disapproval of the specific legislation crafted by the administration and reworked by the Senate. Delegates echoed Busch's reluctance to pass complicated legislation in haste and under severe budget pressure.
"This was a bad bill from the beginning," said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, a Prince George's County Democrat. "We need to take time to make the bill right."
Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican, said she was voting for the bill because it would provide about $700 million a year toward funding public schools as called for under Thornton. "This is a new funding formula and I think it's necessary for the state," she said.
Some Democrats voted against the bill because Ehrlich had shut the door on any deal linking slots and a major tax increase to provide the full $1.3 billion needed annually to meet the Thornton commitment.
"I want Thornton to be fully funded and I don't think it will be fully funded unless we identify all the revenue to support it," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the panel would examine the issue through the summer regardless of whether the Senate passes a measure approved by the House that sets up a commission to study expanded gambling.
Miller, who had threatened to keep the General Assembly in session until the House buckled on slots, said yesterday that there was nothing more he could do this session.
"I haven't pulled the plug, but if it doesn't happen this year ... we're not going to agree to a study - that's ridiculous," he said. "Delay means denial, delay means defeat. Study means putting off your responsibility and not adopting anything."
Miller said it would be up to the House, rather than the Senate, to initiate any slots bill next year. "We're not going to move forward on the bill," he said.
Early yesterday, as the defeat became inevitable, Ehrlich warned that "the stakes are high here."
"Too many things are bought around here with no expectation of paying for them. And we were elected to stop that," he said. "And if that takes some significant new medicine, then that is what I think we have to do."
Slots opponents said yesterday they were pleased by the House action but remained concerned that a deal might still be struck in the waning days of the session.