Slots bill `extremely dead'

Little to no chance seen for gambling, tax proposals

Miller assails Busch `games'

Ehrlich to focus on remainder of agenda in session's last days

General Assembly

April 10, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly appears set to adjourn Monday night without passage of either Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to expand gambling or any parts of the $670 million tax package passed by the House of Delegates.

"In my opinion, it is extremely dead," declared Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller yesterday of the slots bill, assailing House Speaker Michael E. Busch for "playing games" with the centerpiece of Ehrlich's legislative agenda.

While the House has yet to kill the governor's slots plan - either through a committee vote or on the chamber floor - Miller said there is too little time and too little serious effort on the part of the House to "waste any more energy."

"If they pass a slots bill, it will just be for show," Miller said. "It will simply be to try and minimize the major political damage that's been done to the Democratic Party. But it's going to be impossible to do, because the people know who the real villains are."

Ehrlich administration officials agreed with the Senate president's assessment and said they will focus all their efforts on their remaining legislative priorities.

"We're tired of wasting time, and we're spending no more time working on slots," said Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick. "One hundred percent of our time and attention is now being spent on the Chesapeake Bay bill, the ethics legislation, the minority business bill and the other bills we're interested in."

Gambling opponents cheered the demise of Ehrlich's plan yesterday. "We're obviously pleased. The good news is that we've been able to maintain our position for another year. The bad news is that there's a likelihood we're going to have to do this again next year," said Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of stopslotsmaryland.com.

But racing industry advocates said the failure of slots further hurts the competitiveness of Maryland tracks.

"We're probably going to have to make severe changes to our racing program, such as reducing the number of racing days and cutting purses, and we will probably lose a substantial number of horses," said Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Conceding defeat

While Busch held out faint hope yesterday that common ground might still be found - expressing willingness to keep talking to the governor and Senate president for the remainder of the session - even some of the House's strongest slots supporters were prepared to concede defeat.

"If the Senate president said `extremely dead,' put an exclamation point behind it," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing gambling. "It's still alive here, but it's on life support."

The pronouncements that Ehrlich's plan to legalize slot machines had failed for the second year in a row came less than 24 hours after the governor and the two presiding officers met in a last-ditch bid to salvage the expanded gambling legislation.

Miller and Ehrlich said they left the 40-minute meeting in the governor's mansion thinking there was hope for a deal over slots and taxes. They said they thought the three might convene again late last night to start drafting a compromise bill.

But Ehrlich and Busch met a few minutes later in the governor's State House office, where the speaker raised requiring slots approval by voters as a Constitutional amendment. "The governor was noncommittal on that," said the speaker, noting that a recent poll found 80 percent of Marylanders favor deciding on slots by referendum rather than Assembly action. "We talked about it, and he had some reservations."

The speaker's late push for a referendum persuaded Miller and administration officials that Busch - a slots opponent - wasn't serious about reaching a deal. "Mike [Busch]'s demands are too far apart from what the governor has indicated has to have happen," Miller said. "When you're worlds apart, it's nearly impossible to find middle ground. ... It's like trying to hit a moving target."

Since almost the beginning of the 90-day session, House Democrats have insisted that they wouldn't pass a slots bill unless the governor and the Senate agreed to a comprehensive package of revenue increases.

Even if a slots plan were approved this year, it could be two years or more before the state began to receive revenues. While the coming year's budget is balanced, Maryland's revenues for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2005, are projected to be $830 million short of spending.

To fill that hole and avoid deep cuts to health care and local government aid, the House passed a tax plan last month that raises $670 million. It increases the 5-cent-per-dollar sales tax by a penny and the personal income tax rate for family incomes in excess of $200,000, while cutting the state portion of property tax bills.

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