Busch to offer bill today for a referendum on slots

Speaker's plan will likely alter Ehrlich's proposal

August 06, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Maryland Senate president intensified pressure yesterday for legalizing slot machines as House leaders promised to submit plans today for letting voters decide the issue.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said he would hand the Republican governor a bill today based on a plan he first offered at the end of this year's legislative session. The proposal would significantly alter the governor's plan by allowing slots in publicly owned facilities instead of racetracks.

Busch's plan was derided by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, who said "not one meaningful thing" on slots has come out of the House and warned that failure to act on the issue would hurt Democrats at the polls.

Ehrlich "has got his foot right on the neck of the Democratic Party," Miller said. He predicted that popular services and programs will have to be cut because the state won't have slots revenue to pay for them.

"It's going to fall squarely on the Democrats for not moving forward on slots," Miller said. "I'm not absolving anybody. I just know where the blame is going to land."

The only way, Miller said, to get Ehrlich to agree to a referendum, which he opposes on principle, is to put the governor's version of a slots bill to a vote.

"You can't have somebody who opposes the bill ... dramatically take the governor's bill and realign it, remake it, reconfigure it so the governor doesn't even support his own bill and say, `Now I want that on a referendum,'" Miller said.

Ehrlich made a lengthy case for slots in a speech to horse industry leaders in Upper Marlboro. He won applause when he said, "It's time that the leadership, part of the leadership in Annapolis, heard the people. It's time we get it done."

Standing with Miller afterward, Ehrlich said he is tired of meeting with Busch and asked the speaker to present a proposal.

"If you don't like our bill ... give us another bill," Ehrlich said. "We'll talk. We'll negotiate."

Busch said he'll submit his bill this morning. But, he added, his proposal would be nothing new.

The bill that Busch backed in the spring would allow 13,500 machines at six state-owned facilities. One would be built on land leased by the state next to Laurel Park. Others would be at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, the Rocky Gap Lodge and Resort near Cumberland, along Interstate 95 in Harford County, and in Frederick and Cambridge.

Under that bill, some slots revenues would help improve Laurel Park and others would go to Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore to help it keep the Preakness Stakes.

When the bill was introduced in April, Senate Democrats and Republicans criticized it as gamesmanship designed to force slots proponents to approve gambling in their districts.

Busch said yesterday that the locations he proposes would be the most effective at preventing Marylanders from crossing the state line to play slots in West Virginia, Delaware or, soon, Pennsylvania.

"I don't see anybody driving from Hagerstown to get down to Laurel or Pimlico," Busch said, referring to locations Ehrlich has favored. "You need something in the border areas of the state."

Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick said late yesterday that the governor is "delighted" that Busch is moving toward resolving the slots issue, but declined to comment on the specifics of the plan until he receives it. "Whatever we discuss," Schurick said, "has to be a reasonable and realistic plan."

In the last two legislative sessions, Ehrlich proposed slots bills that would place the machines at racetracks - a key, he said yesterday, to maintaining the state's multibillion-dollar horse industry. Both times, the Senate passed his bills essentially intact only to see them die in the House.

Even if Ehrlich, Miller and Busch agree on a slots program, major obstacles stand in the way of getting a referendum on the November ballot.

Because Marylanders cannot create state laws through a referendum, Busch and other House leaders have proposed putting on the ballot a constitutional amendment to legalize slots. But to meet the ballot deadline, 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.

That margin is considered impossible without the full backing of Busch, Miller and Ehrlich.

The three remain divided over the wisdom of amending the constitution to legalize slots and the form such an amendment should take.

Busch said he wants the amendment to be as specific as possible, stating the number of machines, their locations and other details to give voters a say in the specifics and to prevent further expansion of gambling without additional constitutional amendments.

Miller said he generally opposes legislating through the constitution but is willing to let pragmatism trump philosophy.

"I'm very flexible," he said.

But Ehrlich said such specific language about revenue splitting, ownership and venues is "not what you want in your state constitution."

The governor said he believes he has the votes for a simple majority for slots in both houses of the legislature, but he is not certain of securing the super majority needed for a constitutional amendment.

Busch said yesterday that he would commit to rounding up the 85 votes a referendum would need, but he faces divisions even within the House leadership.

"The way to turn the page on the slots issue is not to acquiesce to the national gambling industry and Governor Ehrlich," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "We need to settle it now and kill slots once and for all."

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