Voters' role in slots gets attention

Legislators quietly discuss compromise that would put issue on Nov. ballot

General Assembly

February 18, 2004|By Howard Libit and Greg Garland | Howard Libit and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As the governor and Senate leaders head toward another collision over slots with House Speaker Michael E. Busch, one potential compromise quietly under discussion involves putting the question of expanded gambling to Maryland's voters.

If the slots issue goes on the state's November ballot, it would follow the path taken by the General Assembly 32 years ago, when the state lottery was created. Referendum advocates say it would give "the people" the final say on such a major change in public policy.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat whose district voted 70 percent for Ehrlich in 2002, said a referendum would be a "compromise for some of us who recognize the need for additional revenues but don't think slots are very good public policy."

"It's such a major public policy change, we ought to let the voters have their say," said Jimeno, who voted against slots last year but said he has not made up his mind. "That's what we did with the lottery, so why not with slots?"

Three-fifths of both the House and Senate must approve a measure for it to be put on an election ballot.

While the concept seems appealing to undecided lawmakers -- as well as senators who caught flak from their constituents for how they voted last year -- the most vocal supporters and opponents of slots both criticize the alternative.

Slots supporters say the election of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. amounted to a referendum on slots -- and note polls showing that voters support legalizing slots at horse-racing tracks by a wide margin.

They also say lawmakers are elected to make the tough votes, and that Maryland's fiscal situation can't afford even a six-month delay in starting the flow of revenue.

Slots opponents fear that putting slots to a referendum would spark an avalanche of gambling money pouring into Maryland for an advertising campaign. Tens of millions of dollars have flowed into other states that have taken votes on slots, with gambling questions often -- but not always -- winning.

For now, Ehrlich administration officials reject the idea of sending the gambling question to the voters, as do slots advocates in the Senate. They also note that if dollars from slots were to be tied into next year's budget, the courts wouldn't allow it to go to the voters.

But all say they're willing to listen to virtually any slots proposal made by Busch and House Democratic leaders in an effort to forge some sort of compromise. Last year, the Senate approved a slots proposal, but it was killed in a House committee.

`Everything is open'

"We have not discussed that aspect of trying a referendum, but I'd say everything is open and on the table," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat and the chairman of an ad hoc Senate committee working on the governor's proposal. "It's not something I support, because we need the revenue as soon as possible. ... But we're willing to talk about anything."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- Ehrlich's chief legislative ally on slots -- bluntly rejects the idea of a referendum.

"All the referendum would do is add another six months of delay in terms of the state getting the money it so enormously needs," said Miller.

Senators have been working privately this week on the governor's slots proposal, and it could come to a committee vote within days -- with Miller hoping to have the full Senate considering the slots bill as soon as next week.

Part of the need for the Assembly to approve slots this year -- and not wait for a vote in November -- is that Miller intends to amend the legislation to seek about $45 million in up-front licensing fees. That money would replace public schools funding cut by the governor that was intended to help address geographic disparities in education costs, said Miller. He also mentioned the possibility of tying slots into this week's city schools financial resolution.

Nevertheless, Miller concedes that a referendum alternative "might help" among delegates, and says the Senate "will consider anything the House passes over."

And several senators who are wavering on slots -- and who heard from many constituents since the 2003 session -- said a referendum might relieve some of their concerns.

"A referendum would help a lot," said Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel Republican who voted for slots last year.

Other legislators say that absent the need to amend the state's constitution, they see no reason to turn lawmaking over to voters.

"That's running the legislature like the state of California does," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "I thought we were elected to make the decisions."

Some of the Assembly's most vocal slots critics also reject the idea of a referendum -- mostly because they say it would be an unfair contest that they would be all but certain to lose.

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