Busch may press for slots on ballot

Referendum would make gambling issue a matter of changing constitution

General Assembly

April 11, 2004|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Plans to expand gambling in Maryland this year are expected to die when the General Assembly adjourns tomorrow at midnight, but a few final twitches may shake Annapolis until then.

Several lawmakers said yesterday they believe House Speaker Michael E. Busch will push a vote in committee and on the House floor for a November referendum that would legalize slot machine gambling through a constitutional amendment.

But neither the Senate president nor the governor supports the idea, dismissing it as a last-ditch effort by the House of Delegates to avoid blame for the failure of a gambling bill for the second straight year.

Busch would not answer directly yesterday whether a referendum vote was impending, but he said that most, if not all, states that have allowed gambling have done so through ballot initiatives.

"Every other state that has had expanded gaming has had some sort of referendum," Busch said. "In all honesty, it would be something of a last resort."

The referendum concept gained currency late in the day yesterday, the Assembly's penultimate working day. Despite more than two hours of private meetings in the morning, House Democrats were unable to reach agreement on the best manner to defeat the governor's proposal to legalize slot machines.

But hours after the meeting, Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, said she met with Busch and asked him if the referendum concept would be advancing. Busch said "sure," she said.

Bobo, a gambling opponent, said she feared the idea could give the slots concept new life at the eleventh hour, after Busch seemed to have killed it for the second straight year. Other House leaders also said the idea was a strong possibility.

"It reminds me of being in a marathon, and the finish line is in sight, and you start running backwards," Bobo said. "I think it's an invitation to the gambling industry to come into the state and spend millions and millions of dollars to convince certain neighborhoods to say they want slots."

Constitutional amendments require a super-majority vote in both chambers and cannot be vetoed by the governor. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said his chamber would not support the idea.

"It would require 32 votes. It's a nonentity. It's a nonstarter," Miller said. "I had 27 votes for a slots bill. People don't know how to count.

"They've had two years to work on this bill. Now it's two days left until the end of the session. It's frustrating. It's bad public policy."

Are slots `really dead'?

Earlier in the day, speaking about the prospect of a statewide referendum, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said, "It's nothing that we've been interested in."

William Rickman Jr., who has been seeking slots at his racetrack near Ocean City and one planned for Allegany County, said, "Everyone is watching and wondering if it's really dead already, or if it's going to be killed on Monday. ... How do you get to closure?"

Nevertheless, rumors swirled around the State House yesterday about ways a slots bill could spring back to life, as well as alternatives the House Democratic leadership might use to finish it off.

Opponents' plans

Some slots opponents want the House Ways and Means Committee to let out a slots bill just so they could have the opportunity to kill it on the floor.

But Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, insisted her views remain unchanged - that her committee will not support slots without at least $500 million in fee or tax increases. "Anything dealing with slots, we've got here in our committee," said Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "You know my position: No taxes, no slots."

Some slots opponents also fear what could happen. "It's very risky to bring a slots bill onto the floor in any form because of the massive amounts of national special-interest gambling money floating around Annapolis," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat.

Governor's slim hope

Ehrlich is seeking to raise more than $800 million a year for the state budget through a plan passed by the Senate to permit 15,500 slot machines at six locations.

The governor has flatly rejected any sales or income tax increases.

Although the governor's aides have conceded this year's slots effort is over, Ehrlich insisted there remains a slim chance.

"Where there's hope, there's hope. I learned in the classroom, the courtroom and on the field never to give up hope," he said.

Democrats who oppose slots say it's just a question of time and method. And they want to send a clear message.

"We need to drive a stake through its heart," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat. "Whatever it takes, whether it's in committee or on the floor. We need to make sure it doesn't come back and dominate a third straight session. Let's just kill it for good."

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