Ehrlich says fiscal woes could bring the Assembly back

New slots plan, more cuts could be special session focus if he issues recall

April 17, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he is keeping open the possibility of recalling the General Assembly for a special session this year to consider a revamped gambling proposal that would eventually provide sorely needed money for state operations.

"There's discussions going on on lots of things," Ehrlich said. "The reality of the [fiscal] situation is starting to hit home. There's some people newly concerned. They want to revisit the issue."

Ehrlich's remarks were made 10 days after the Assembly concluded its 90-day session without passing a racetrack slots proposal that had been at the center of the governor's legislative agenda. A gambling plan was approved by the Senate, but killed by a House committee.

The governor said he has not yet altered his slots plan, which called for 3,500 machines at each of three Central Maryland tracks and 1,000 more at a track to be built in Western Maryland. And there are no immediate plans to ask lawmakers to reconvene: "The answer in the short term is `no,'" he said.

But he said that since the Assembly's close, worries about state finances are growing.

Ehrlich had estimated that his slots initiative would have eventually provided $700 million yearly for public schools. Having ruled out tax increases, the governor's staff has begun preparing a budget for the fiscal year that begins in July 2004 that closes a nearly $1 billion revenue gap entirely through cuts.

"The citizens of Maryland are not happy with the demise of the slots bill, and they're letting their feelings be known," the governor said.

Ehrlich's comments reflect a modification in thinking over the past two weeks. At the session's close, the governor insisted he would spend no more political capital on the high-profile issue, and would not introduce a slots bill next year.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the most vocal critic of Ehrlich's bill, rejected yesterday the need for a special session and reiterated that the idea needs further study.

"Why would you come back in and pass slots without some kind of structural resolution to the budget?" Busch said. "Nothing has changed on slots about the questions."

Busch also said he hears no public outcry for expanded gambling. "Who's outraged?" the speaker said. "I don't have people coming up to me in mass droves saying we have to have slot machines."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- who backed the governor's slots plan -- said he, too, does not believe there will be a special session. "I just don't see any movement on the part of the speaker of the House," Miller said. He noted that if Ehrlich convenes the Assembly, the first order of business would be overriding anticipated gubernatorial vetoes.

Special sessions are rare in Maryland, and are typically called with the consent of presiding officers who have struck an agreement with the governor on an important issue. Without unanimity, legislative leaders could thwart the wishes of the chief executive by such procedural moves as refusing to hold committee hearings.

"Mike Busch would look like a hypocrite if he did it," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a slots proponent. "I would be overwhelmed if it happened. It would raise questions about the presiding officers and their commitment to the legislative process. There's no rationale to do this until the next session."

Ehrlich repeated his view yesterday that the Assembly won't pass slots until there is "a mindset change or a regime change."

"I don't want regime change," he said. "If there was a mindset change, it would be possible."

The governor also raised the possibility that a returning Assembly would be asked to address a further issue: finding deeper budget cuts to replace a $135 million corporate tax bill he intends to veto.

While Ehrlich said he is still leaning toward having the cuts made through the Board of Public Works, he would not rule out the possibility of asking lawmakers to close the spending gap.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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