Ehrlich, Busch discuss slots in meeting

Governor, speaker review General Assembly issues

December 12, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

SOLOMONS -- Ending an icy silence, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has begun face-to-face talks with the chief opponent of his slots-at-racetracks plan five weeks before the next General Assembly session.

Ehrlich bridged the gap between himself and House Speaker Michael E. Busch on Monday, when he traveled down a floor in the State House for his first private encounter with the powerful legislator in months.

Describing the 20-minute session inside Busch's office yesterday for the first time, Ehrlich confirmed that the pair spoke about slot-machine gambling. But he said the issue arose only after discussions about his other priorities for the Assembly session, including speeding the redevelopment of contaminated industrial sites and reforming medical malpractice law.

No agreement was reached on gambling, and the governor said he remains unsure if a slots plan will pass the next Assembly.

"I'm not optimistic. I'm not pessimist," Ehrlich said yesterday, speaking to reporters here at a Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) conference. "Last year, I was optimistic."

Busch agreed with the governor's version of events, adding that Ehrlich told him the administration would not be offering a slots bill this year -- leaving the initiative to the House of Delegates.

Before this week, Busch said he had spoken with Ehrlich twice since April, both times in group settings. The governor's outreach comes as the prospects of his slots initiative continue to look murky.

A slots proponent, Ehrlich wants the gambling machines legalized at racetracks to help close state budget deficits projected to reach $1 billion in two years, out of a general fund of about $11 billion. But Busch was highly critical of the legislation introduced by the governor during this year's session, raising questions about whether track owners would make too much money, and whether the urban areas around racetracks such as Pimlico could accommodate slots emporiums.

At Busch's behest, the House Ways and Means Committee killed the governor's bill, and embarked on an off-season study of gambling that is now largely completed. But the speaker has said the committee won't be drafting a bill of its own; instead, he said, it will release findings and recommendations that will become the subject of debate.

With neither Ehrlich nor Busch committing to legislation, it is uncertain from where the push for slots will come. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. supports slots but is the subject of a federal investigation into campaign donations from racetrack interests.

The governor has embraced some of the concepts that Busch floated over the summer, including the inclusion of some state-built, state-managed slots facilities in a final plan.

"The negotiations at the staff level began months ago," the governor said yesterday, adding that state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. and communications director Paul E. Schurick continue to meet with legislative leaders.

Busch, a Democrat, and Ehrlich, a Republican, have been personal friends, attending each other's weddings and sharing drinks and meals together as members of the House of Delegates. While the relationship has become strained over slots and other issues, Busch said yesterday that they remain "cordial."

Ehrlich thanked county officials yesterday for their support of his slots plan this year. Many local officials fear that their budgets may bear a heavy burden if the machines are not legalized, and state aid to counties is cut.

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins, installed last night as president of MACO, said Ehrlich has kept his word on the amount of local aid cut to help balance his first year's budget. But the future remains uncertain.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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