Summer session for slots talks looks unlikely

Ehrlich says authorizing a referendum is `a big if'

May 28, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The buzz over a possible summer General Assembly session to legalize slot machines through referendum is fading, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. calling the prospect "a big if," and House Speaker Michael E. Busch saying that gambling talks have stalled.

"I think it's very iffy if discussions go any further," Busch told a breakfast meeting of Baltimore-area clergy this week.

Ehrlich reiterated during a news conference Wednesday that he does not favor a constitutional amendment to allow gambling. Such an amendment must be authorized by voters, and a summer session of the Assembly would be needed to place it on the November ballot.

"I don't think it's a very good idea," he said. "To amend our constitution this way is a sloppy way to go about our business."

Talk of a possible summer session grew this month when Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller resumed their discussions over gambling and agreed to broach the referendum plan with the governor.

Busch is the leading legislative opponent of slots and has killed the governor's gambling plans for two consecutive years. But the speaker is stung by criticism that he is obstructing the wishes of the governor and a majority of Maryland residents, and political observers say a referendum vote could help ease that criticism.

Busch says Ehrlich must push for the referendum concept for it to happen. Ehrlich has said that lawmakers should agree on a slots plan and pass it on their own, without asking voters for approval.

Miller appears to be the leading force behind a referendum and has described himself as a broker smoothing tensions between the governor and the speaker. Miller said this week that talks would continue, but that no concrete details of a slots plan were in the works.

Ehrlich has mentioned several reasons why the Assembly might reconvene this summer, including to address medical malpractice issues. During the news conference, he spoke of lawmakers fixing problems he sees in a corporate tax loophole-closing bill that he allowed to become law without his signature.

"If we have a special session - that's a big if - it is certainly something that could be done in a special session," Ehrlich said.

But the governor said that he was growing tired of talking about slots.

"I will meet with anybody at any time. But I hate wasting my time," Ehrlich said. "The mayor of Baltimore wasted my time last winter for two weeks [discussing the city schools financial crisis]. I've been wasting my time in slots meetings, endless slots meeting for two years. ... I am tired of having unproductive discussions."

Ehrlich said that recent rosy budget news about growing tax revenues and shrinking deficit projections do not affect the slots debate.

"We still have a $1.3 billion unfunded mandate passed two years ago without a funding source," the governor said, referring to the so-called Thornton plan for public schools. "If we had a balanced budget, slots would make sense. If we had a billion-dollar surplus, slots would make sense. If we had a $4 billion surplus, slots would make sense as well."

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