The likelihood of legalizing slot machines grew bleak yesterday as the state's two chief slots supporters, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, said they were ready to give up if no deal is reached today with House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
Even without an agreement on gambling, Miller said he'll back down on his refusal to let Senate negotiators hammer out a budget, freeing the logjam blocking scores of bills.
Miller's concession seemed to ensure that the General Assembly will end on time Monday with a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year, but huge deficits projected into the future.
Ehrlich and the two presiding officers talked for about 40 minutes in the governor's mansion around dinnertime, and the speaker and governor met again for about 15 minutes privately on the second floor of the State House. The governor issued an ulitmatum that could end debate on slots for another year.
"I just suggested that we either move forward or shut it down," Ehrlich said last night. "We have at least a half-dozen major administration initiatives out there that are alive, that we believe are important, that I would like to spend my remaining time."
Hours earlier, Busch had publicly outlined the House Democratic alternative to the governor's gambling plan. The proposal for state-owned slots palaces excludes most of Maryland's racetracks. It drew immediate sharp criticism from Senate leaders, who charged the speaker with playing politics.
"I think it's kind of a gotcha," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, noting that several of the sites proposed by the speaker are in such Republican strongholds as Timonium, Frederick and Harford County.
"It's like he's playing in the playground."
The evening meeting among the top three State House politicians offered little hope of a deal. It capped yet another whirlwind day of private talks, at the end of which it seemed that the gambling initiative was on life support.
One more try
After his final discussion with the speaker, Ehrlich seemed resolved last night to moving forward without one of his signature initiatives, but he said he expected to try again with the presiding officers this morning.
The governor is steadfast in opposing new revenues demanded by House Democrats as necessary to balance state budgets in future years. The House slots proposal contains many elements that are distasteful to Republicans and the omission of any sites in Baltimore City or Prince George's County.
"Right now, they are about as far apart as on the first day of the session," Miller said, saying there appeared by be the "basis" for an agreement on slots but a vast gulf on taxes. "We're not even to first base."
Miller seemed to throw in the towel on the floor of the Senate hours earlier, all but announcing an end to a budgetary standoff that has persisted for weeks and ensnared other legislation.
"What we are going to do, is meet with the governor and the speaker ... and say, look, enough is enough, the people don't understand this," Miller said. "The Democrats have lost. We need to move forward and try to salvage as much of the session as we possibly can."
Breaking with decades of tradition, Miller has refused to appoint members of a negotiating committee to settle budget differences until the House acted on slots. But yesterday, the president said those appointments would be made soon, and he discounted the prospect of an extended session as unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.
Busch contends that the standoff has resulted solely from a need to provide revenues for future budgets. If the governor's slots plan is passed this year, he says, the fiscal 2006 budget still has a shortfall of $830 million, and Ehrlich has not said how he would fill it. Deep cuts to local governments and health care are likely. The House has passed a $670 million-a-year tax package to stave off those cuts.
"The House has got a slots proposal and a revenue proposal," Busch said. "The governor says cuts and slots, but won't show us where the cuts are."
Miller paints the standoff in a far more political light. "The Democratic Party loses big this session. I mean big time. Big time," he said. "There is going to be political consequences as a result of the failure, on the part of Democrats in the House, to reconcile their differences with the governor."
Rewriting the bill
Despite the slim prospects for a slots-and-taxes deal, House Democrats plowed forward yesterday with their plan to drastically rewrite the slots bill submitted by the governor and amended by the Senate.
That measure would allow 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and at three non-track locations.
By contrast, the House bill would permit 13,500 slots machines at six state-owned facilities. Five would be on state-owed land: the State Fairgrounds in Timonium, the Rocky Gap Lodge and Resort near Cumberland, Frederick, Cambridge and Harford County along Interstate 95.