Leery of being "jacked around" by political opponents, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he favors a special session of the General Assembly to address gambling issues but wants lawmakers to pass a slots plan outright rather than authorize a November referendum.
Ehrlich said he was not convinced that a fresh willingness from House Speaker Michael E. Busch this week to discuss a ballot-box vote represented progress in the gambling debate. Busch may be softening his message as a slots opponent, the governor said, because of criticism that he and other delegates are receiving from voters since the General Assembly's 90-day regular session ended last month without passage of a gambling program.
"Is it another way to kill the bill? I don't know," the governor said in an interview, referring to Busch's statements this week that have re-energized the gambling issue. "But I've seen this movie before, and I don't like the ending."
During an appearance on WBAL radio earlier in the day, Ehrlich said: "I believe right now, unless somebody convinces me otherwise, that this is a short-term political calculation [by Busch] to take the heat off."
Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller dined together this week and discussed the prospect of convening a special summer session to authorize a slots referendum on the November ballot. Miller said that he would be meeting soon with the governor to discuss the idea and that the three leaders would get together after that. Talks are in the early stages, but the prospect is generating excitement among slots proponents.
Led by Busch, the House of Delegates has killed Ehrlich's and Miller's slots plans for two consecutive years.
The governor said yesterday that he favors a legislative vote on installing slots at racetracks and other locations.
"We should pass the bill. I do support a special session; the votes are there," Ehrlich said in the radio interview. "We should call them in, pass the darn thing and help save Maryland's horse racing and fund public education in the process."
After the dinner, Busch said that he would continue discussions about a referendum if Miller and Ehrlich desire but that he is not working on a specific gambling plan. The speaker has previously favored state-owned facilities located away from neighborhoods and along interstate highways to attract Marylanders leaving the state to gamble in West Virginia and Delaware. The governor's plan has included locations at racetracks, with sizable proceeds going to track owners.
For Ehrlich, Busch's comments were reminiscent of similar statements a year ago.
"And all I got was jacked around for a year," Ehrlich said on WBAL. "The bill passed the Senate in the middle of February and sat in the house until sine die. It sat there for seven weeks. And I don't like getting jacked around. I got jacked around, and it is not going to happen again. Believe me."
Issue here to stay
This week's developments illustrate that the gambling issue will not disappear in Maryland despite the failure of slots bills for two consecutive years. The state faces an $800 million shortfall for the budget year that begins July 2005, and Ehrlich has said he would veto sales or income tax increases.
But neither slots supporters nor opponents knew yesterday what to make of recent discussions, especially because Busch - the Assembly's most prominent gambling critic - has not offered the governor a plan he could support.
"It's too premature to make any assessment as to what may or may not occur," said Alan Rifkin, a lobbyist for Maryland Jockey Club, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks. "Hopefully, the legislature will see fit to address both the budget and the continuing problem of Marylanders spending their money in other states."
Aaron Meisner, the coordinating chairman of stopslotsmaryland.com, said he is not concerned that Busch had abandoned the anti-slots camp or that approval of gambling is imminent.
"I don't see where this moves Maryland any closer to having slots. I think it has been way overblown, in terms of the likelihood of it happening," Meisner said. "When you are dealing with an issue that is so complex that it couldn't be resolved in two full sessions and an off-season, what makes you think that it could be solved in an extremely short special session?"
Tom Bowman, a veterinarian and horse breeder who is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, called talk of a summer special session "encouraging" but said he has become frustrated by Busch's shifting thoughts on slots. "It's like trying to pin down an eel," Bowman said. "He just changes what he says so often."
A referendum on slots has been discussed in varying degrees of seriousness for the past two years. Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, introduced legislation that would amend the state constitution to allow up to six gambling licenses in the state.