No deal yet on fall vote on slot machines

House leaders meet with Ehrlich officials

August 03, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Ehrlich administration and Maryland House of Delegates leaders failed to strike a deal yesterday for putting a constitutional amendment to legalize slot machine gambling before voters in November.

With time running short for a referendum favored by House leaders, both sides emerged from a long closed-door meeting saying the next move is up to the other.

Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said House Democratic leaders showed more interest in putting together a slots bill than he had seen before.

And while Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "is not a fan" of a proposed referendum, DiPaula said, the governor would not reject the idea outright and promised an expedited review of any plan the delegates put forward.

"The leadership has committed to putting a product together and bringing it to the governor," DiPaula said.

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch said after a meeting that lasted more than two hours that the governor has been aware of the House slots plan since the spring and that he was disappointed that Ehrlich "would deny the citizens the option to vote on this."

"It's clearly in the governor's court," Busch said.

The General Assembly has spent much of the two years since Ehrlich took office battling over legalized slot machines, which the governor endorsed in the campaign but which Busch opposes. House leaders first floated the idea of a statewide vote on the issue last spring, but are facing a deadline for getting the question on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Marylanders cannot create state laws through a referendum. But Busch and other House leaders have proposed putting on the ballot a constitutional amendment to legalize slots, which they said would both allow voters a say in the process and make it more difficult for lawmakers to expand gambling later.

To meet the deadline for the election, the General Assembly would have to meet in special session within the next month and pass a proposal by a 60 percent margin in both houses, a hurdle considered impossible without Ehrlich's blessing.

"The people have to be considered in this," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat. "The only manner to decide this that is fair is to have the people speak."

Objections by governor

But Ehrlich has objected, saying he believes putting the issue before the voters is an abdication of the government's responsibility to lead and that it is inappropriate to change the constitution for slots.

Although DiPaula didn't close the door on a referendum last night, he made it plain that the governor would not endorse the concept without a concrete plan.

"That's putting the cart before the horse," he said.

Busch put forward a slots proposal in April, calling for publicly owned slots emporiums at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium; Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Allegany County; Cambridge in Dorchester County; Harford and Frederick counties; and the Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County.

Slots proponents branded the plan a political ploy, because the facilities Busch proposed are largely in Republican areas where residents oppose gambling. The plan quickly died.

Key elements

Yesterday, Busch mentioned elements of his original proposal, such as putting slots at publicly owned sites, as keys to a plan that the House would accept. But he said he is not sure that the governor could muster a majority in the House for any plan, except one that allowed voters to decide the issue.

"Roughly in the next two weeks, we're going to find out one way or another whether it's going to happen," Busch said.

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