Time is short for vote on slots

Lawmakers will meet, but support is soft for a Nov. 2 referendum

August 01, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch will huddle with top lieutenants tomorrow for the latest - and possibly last - discussion on whether a constitutional amendment for slot machine gambling should appear on the November ballot.

With a scheduling deadline near, the Anne Arundel Democrat said he still prefers a referendum for settling the debate over gambling expansion. The Assembly's most visible slots skeptic, Busch has twice led efforts to kill plans offered by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and approved by the state Senate.

Some members of Busch's team are growing impatient. They have told the speaker the issue needs to be resolved - either through a ballot-box vote or other means - before the Assembly begins its regular session in January.

"Anybody who thinks the issue is dead is dead wrong," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "We can't have another two years dominated by this. We can't have pressing matters in this state bogged down by this issue again."

Pennsylvania's recent decision to allow 61,000 slot machines has permanently altered the debate in Maryland, said Del. John Adams Hurson of Montgomery County, the Democratic chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee.

Hurson and Busch met for breakfast at a national legislative conference in Salt Lake City last month and agreed that "it is probably inevitable that someday, in some way, Maryland is going to have slot machines," the Montgomery lawmaker said.

He hopes tomorrow's meeting results in an agreement that would allow voters to decide to place state-owned slots parlors at racetracks, places where gambling already occurs.

The speaker said he would engage in serious negotiations over the location, ownership and taxation rate of slots facilities only if Ehrlich agrees to a referendum.

"I'm tired of all these meetings over nothing," Busch said in an interview last week. "You have to come out and say you are willing to go to referendum, or it doesn't work."

But Ehrlich continues to reject the idea.

"It's like putting clown shoes on the Statue of Liberty: The founders never envisioned the constitution being used for things like legalizing gambling," said Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich.

Annapolis veterans agree that a resolution to the gambling debate must involve agreement between the House speaker, Senate president and governor. For a constitutional amendment to proceed, the General Assembly would have to agree to meet in a special session within the next month and pass a proposal by a 60 percent margin.

While the governor's approval is not legally required, it is considered a practical necessity.

Framing an offer

Tomorrow's meeting could help the House frame an offer that Ehrlich might find attractive.

Despite Ehrlich's assertion that the constitution is sacrosanct, the document contains many components that framers could not have envisioned. One section deals with off-street parking in Baltimore; another covers the city's industrial financing loans. The document was amended in the 1970s to allow the Maryland Lottery.

Unlike residents of California and some other states, Marylanders cannot petition ideas into law. Referendums are limited to efforts to overturn laws passed by the Assembly and to change the constitution.

Schurick said the governor believes the 2002 gubernatorial election amounted to a referendum on slots, because Ehrlich supported gambling expansion and his opponent, former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was opposed.

Beyond the governor's stated opposition, there are political reasons why Ehrlich would resist a referendum.

"I'll be blunt with you: I think the governor is afraid to put to the people the question of whether they want slot machines in their neighborhood," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat and House majority leader.

A referendum should be structured, Barve said, so voters decide the placement of slots facilities at the same time they are weighing the broader concept. A majority vote in favor of slots in Baltimore or a county, for example, would mean a gambling facility could be located there.

Barve and others maintain that while Maryland residents might like the idea of slots, they don't want facilities located near them. A "no" vote would be seen as a repudiation of Ehrlich and his policies, damaging the governor two years before he stands for re-election.

"It would be an embarrassment for the governor," Barve said.

Added McIntosh, the Baltimore delegate: "I have begun to wonder, and so have many others, how serious the governor is about this."

Ehrlich earns points by painting Busch and the House of Delegates as obstructionists, said Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat. But that advantage would evaporate after a referendum vote.

"I don't think the governor wants to go out there and defend it," McHale said. "Politically, he's better just posturing."

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