Miller, Busch ponder session to approve slots referendum

State voters could decide on gambling in November

May 06, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Legislative leaders are seriously considering the prospect of a special session of the General Assembly this summer to authorize a November referendum on legalizing slot machine gambling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that he would meet with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to discuss a referendum, and that he and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have resumed their dialogue on how to solve the state's budget problems with gambling as part of the solution.

"Referendums are followership, not leadership, but if that is the bottom line it takes for the House to agree to the governor's plan on slots, then I would acquiesce," Miller said. "We are still on first base, but the issue is what do you agree to have a referendum on. ... The governor still wants his bill.

"A referendum has certainly been talked about," Miller continued. "The speaker would need to discuss it with his leadership team, and the governor would have to buy into in."

Miller and Busch met over dinner Monday night to discuss state politics and budget issues.

Busch said last night that Miller broached the topic of a referendum during the dinner, and the House speaker said he would not automatically dismiss it and was willing to talk more. The referendum would amend the state Constitution to allow an expansion of gambling.

"I would certainly consider any dialogue with the governor and the president of the Senate." Busch said. "I would have to go to my leadership. Our caucus is split. I can't make unilateral decisions.

"The fact of the matter is that if the president wants to go to the governor and discuss it, I have to go along with that," Busch said. "It's an issue that I can't summarily say no to."

Busch said he remains personally opposed to slots, but that the latest polls he has seen show that eight in 10 Maryland residents favor deciding the issue at the ballot box.

Ehrlich's slot machine proposal has passed Miller's Senate for two consecutive years, but has been defeated twice by the House of Delegates, with Busch leading the opposition. But with the state facing a potential $800 million shortfall in the budget year that begins July 2005, the need for more revenue persists.

Miller said that because slot machine gambling alone would not provide all the money the state needs, Ehrlich would have to agree to other sources of revenue as part of a package deal. The governor has repeatedly insisted that he will not agree to a sales or income tax increase.

"What also would have to happen is the recognition that slots alone will not do the job," Miller said. He said the bill passed by the General Assembly to close corporate loopholes would be "a good start," and that an increase in the titling tax on vehicle registrations from 5 percent to 6 percent should also be considered.

Busch said a referendum on slots needed to be considered separately from tax issues because of the need for quick action this summer to get it on the November ballot.

Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick said yesterday that the governor was not inclined to entertain a referendum idea unless there was a consensus within the General Assembly on how a slots program would proceed. Issues that would need to be worked out include location, ownership, tax rates and distribution.

In March, the governor said he adamantly opposed sending the decision on gambling to the voters.

"I believe you earn your salary by making difficult decisions," Ehrlich told a legislative committee. "I think it's a poor precedent when the representative body of the people passes the ball on a difficult decision."

Busch said Miller was primarily pushing for a referendum, and that he would only reluctantly participate in the process. He said a date for a special session has not been discussed, and he hasn't spoken with the governor.

"There's not even a meeting," Busch said.

Miller said he had hoped to meet with Ehrlich already, but that recent surgery on the governor's infant son had delayed those plans.

The Washington Post Web site first reported last night on new details of the slots discussion between Miller and Busch.

In the recently concluded session, the plan passed by the Senate would have permitted up to 15,500 machines at three racetracks and three nontrack locations. Analysts projected the plan would raise more than $800 million a year for the state when all of the machines were up and running.

House Democrats had argued that passing slots alone would not solve Maryland long-term financial problems, and said the governor must develop other revenue sources in addition to expanded gambling.

While the $23.6 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is balanced, analysts project a gap between revenues and spending of at least $800 million in the next year.

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