Slots foes seeking to derail Nov. vote

Busch says he won't block referendum if Miller and Ehrlich back ballot plan

May 19, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gambling opponents in the House of Delegates are pressuring their leaders to abandon an effort for a fall referendum on slot machines, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that a ballot-box vote could help lawmakers craft the best possible deal for state residents.

Busch said he remains convinced that expanded gambling is bad public policy for Maryland, but repeated that he would not block a November referendum to legalize slots if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller support such a plan.

A referendum would force House and Senate members to devise a fair gambling plan that could withstand months of scrutiny leading up to Election Day, the speaker said. Such a plan, he said, would be preferable to the typical legislative solution to contentious problems: compromises worked out by small groups of negotiators through meetings that take place away from public scrutiny and rushed through the Assembly.

"One of the advantages of a referendum in my mind is, if you do put it before the general public, you have to put forward your best product," said Busch, who has criticized earlier proposals from Ehrlich as unduly enriching the horse-racing industry. "It's not left to manipulations in back rooms. This is a long-term public policy. It's going to have a long-term impact."

While Busch, Ehrlich and Miller have in recent weeks resumed talks on a possible referendum since the General Assembly session ended April 12 with no deal on slots, a compromise does not appear imminent. Ehrlich has said he opposes a referendum and prefers a legislative vote on the gambling plan he has introduced for two years, possibly during a summer special session.

Busch and Miller are open to a special session to authorize placing a constitutional amendment on the fall ballot, but details on the numbers, location and ownership of machines have not been determined.

With talk of a referendum growing, 13 Democratic delegates released an open letter to Busch yesterday, saying they were "surprised and alarmed" that the gambling issue has resurfaced after House members killed it for two consecutive years.

Authorizing a referendum, the lawmakers wrote, would allow "the national gambling industry, with its unlimited resources, to come into Maryland and `buy' a referendum victory at a time when the public is skeptical of the electoral process."

"A ballot referendum will likely result in legalizing slot machines -- the very things that have caused addiction, bankruptcy, crime and corruption in states around the country," said the letter, signed by Dels. Curtis S. Anderson of Baltimore, Emmett C. Burns Jr. of Baltimore County, Elizabeth Bobo of Howard County and 10 Washington-area lawmakers.

Busch said yesterday that he appreciated their concerns, but that he was chosen to lead a body of 141 members, many of whom would like to cast votes in favor of the plan.

Miller declined yesterday to address the concerns of slots opponents who hope to derail the referendum talk. "This is internal House politics," he said.

Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who signed the letter, said he is loath to contradict Busch. "When he speaks, I listen," Bronrott said.

But in this case, he said, "I personally feel we should move on to find more responsible and reliable sources of revenues."

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