Slots summer session backed

Discussion of referendum appeals to House leaders

`Almost everyone ... was on board'

Ehrlich first wants plan on location, management

May 12, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates would support a summer General Assembly session to authorize a referendum legalizing slot machines if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. backs the plan.

House committee chairmen and other leaders met behind closed doors for 75 minutes in Annapolis yesterday to discuss recent overtures by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller has proposed reconvening the Assembly in July to pass a constitutional amendment allowing slots, which would require voter approval on the November election ballot.

"Surprisingly, almost everyone in that room was on board," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

However, Ehrlich rejected the offer within hours of the meeting through a spokesman.

"We are not interested in a discussion of referendum right now," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's lead negotiator on slot machines. "We are interested in a discussion of location and operation and management of a slots program."

But all sides said discussions would continue.

"We've decided to have constant, almost daily [discussions]," Ehrlich said. "Most of them will not be face to face."

The House gathering followed a private meeting Monday at Harry Browne's restaurant among Busch, Miller and Ehrlich focusing on slot-machine gambling -- a further indication that gambling talks continue at an aggressive pace since the Assembly session ended last month with no resolution to the matter.

Some Annapolis insiders began talking yesterday about dates for a session, possibly July 12 -17. But those involved in discussions said a decision on dates has not been made.

Committee chairmen agreed yesterday, Busch said, to poll majority Democrats in the House of Delegates, who hold 98 of 141 seats, to determine their views. But the referendum would only advance, he said, if Ehrlich actively works for it.

"For this to be a viable debate, the governor has to be a lead member of bringing this together," Busch said. "It's not going to come from an initiative of the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House."

Busch said yesterday that he did not want to discuss specifics of a new or altered gambling plan until Miller and Ehrlich made a firm commitment to the referendum strategy.

But the Senate president and the governor said Busch's approach was backward.

"We're putting the chicken before the egg," Miller said. "They have to let us know what they like or don't like about our bill. You need an agreement on a bill before you decide what goes on referendum."

Added Schurick: "We think it is completely backwards to talk about a referendum until we have a product."

For two years, the Busch-led House has rejected Ehrlich's slots proposals, which have passed the Senate in modified form. The Senate this year adopted a measure that would authorize 15,500 machines at three racetrack locations and three non-track sites.

The House has never passed its own version of a gambling plan, although in the closing days of the session last month, its Ways and Means Committee was considering a proposal that would locate slots venues owned and constructed by the state at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium; the Rocky Gap golf resort and convention center in Allegany County; Cambridge in Dorchester County; Harford and Frederick counties; and the Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County. Critics assailed the proposal as a political trick because many of the facilities would be in Republican-dominated areas.

Lawmakers left Annapolis last month with the gambling issue unresolved. Even though lawmakers balanced the state's $23.6 billion budget for the coming year, a shortfall of at least $800 million is projected for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2006. By law, the Assembly must pass a balanced budget.

With neighboring Pennsylvania considering approval of slot machines, Maryland faces the possibility of being surrounded by jurisdictions with more legalized gambling, with the exception of Virginia.

"The big advantage to asking people where we should do it, and how we should do it, is it gets rid of it," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "We don't want two more years being paralyzed in the General Assembly."

Speaking before the House leadership meeting, Miller said that agreement is developing "that we need to move ahead, in terms of fashioning some form of consensus bill."

"I'm confident that we are making progress," Miller said. "If the governor saw a bill he was amenable to, the opposition [to a referendum] would wane. If we've got a bill, then we're cooking with gas."

A referendum option was floated by Busch in the closing days of the session as an alternative decision-making approach. Under one version of the plan, slots facilities could be located only in jurisdictions where a majority of voters approved them, and the referendum would also have to pass statewide.

A constitutional amendment requires a supermajority vote -- at least three-fifths of the members in both chambers -- before it goes to the ballot and cannot be vetoed by the governor. Elections officials say they face a Sept. 8 deadline for formulating the fall ballot.

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