Assembly remains deadlocked on slots as session's end nears

Ehrlich orders extension if budget stalemate continues past Monday

General Assembly

April 06, 2004|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

With a flurry of private meetings failing to break the General Assembly's deadlock over slots and taxes, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed an executive order yesterday summoning the legislature for a 10-day extended session unless a state budget is adopted by the legislature's scheduled adjournment on Monday.

Few State House observers consider an overtime session likely this year, and the proclamation is a relatively common step required by the state Constitution. But the order underscores the mounting tension between the House of Delegates on one side and the Senate and Ehrlich on the other over whether legalized gambling should be part of Maryland's long-term fiscal solution.

One presiding officer is talking openly of the possibility of missing the April 12 deadline. During an unpublicized private negotiating session Sunday involving the state's three top political leaders, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he was willing to let the state budget hang in limbo until the House of Delegates took a vote on a slot-machine plan.

"For $800 million, I'm willing to stick around for a long time," Miller told reporters yesterday, referring to the possible take for state coffers from a fully operational slots program.

"Until there's some progress on slots, he's in no hurry," Ehrlich said yesterday, describing Miller's remarks during the meeting, which included House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The three leaders attempted, Ehrlich said, to "come up with areas of mutual agreement" on a gambling plan, particularly regarding where slots emporiums would be located, who would own them and how gambling proceeds would be divided.

"Any announcement is premature," the governor said. "I need to be more general."

Busch said he and the governor talked about what the governor thought was appropriate for expanded gambling. The speaker said he talked about what should be done about the future of racing and Miller pushed for a combination of slots and taxes.

Busch said he told the governor the House would like to see some movement on revenues other than slots.

"There wasn't a whole lot of movement. He listened and was very appreciative of the House position," the speaker said. "It was a good dialogue."

Busch said that he and House leaders will meet today with Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. on the same topics.

The governor's proclamation is a formality required by the Maryland Constitution, and has been issued seven times in the past eight years as budget disputes reached beyond the 83rd day of the annual session - the date by which a budget is legally required to be approved.

The lack of agreement on the framework for a slots plan froze action yesterday by the House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees gambling bills.

"There's nothing to work on because the top has not come to any kind of reasonable compromise," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee.

Davis canceled an afternoon work session yesterday, and was unsure whether a meeting would take place today.

"The governor and the leadership are so far apart," Davis said. "Dangerously far apart."

When the subcommittee begins its work, it has a slew of amendments to consider.

The delegation from Baltimore's 46th district, which includes the Inner Harbor, submitted an amendment to keep their district out of any slots bill. "The neighborhoods in the proximity of the Harbor don't want it," said Del. Brian K. McHale.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a Western Maryland Republican, will try to amend the measure to keep slots from his district, which includes the site of a proposed racetrack in Little Orleans. Some Prince George's delegates are talking about exempting their county, too.

The House and the Senate have approved similar $23.6 billion budgets for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, largely agreeing on how next year's money will be spent.

But vast differences remain on how money should be raised.

The House has approved one of the largest tax packages in state history, authorizing a one-cent increase in the state's five-cents-per-dollar sales tax, and a higher income tax bracket for taxable family income over $200,000 a year. The plan also includes a property tax decrease for homes and businesses.

Miller has refused to consider the House plan, and wants the House to pass a gambling plan to pay for education. The Senate approved a plan for slot machines at three racetracks and three nontrack locations in February, and Ehrlich badly wants a slots bill approved.

Miller precipitated the showdown by refusing to appoint a negotiating team to settle differences among the House and Senate versions of the budget and, more importantly, a companion bill that raises revenues to help balance the budget.

Such refusal is unusual. Typically, by this point in the session, a team of legislative negotiators is near completion on their budget work.

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