Ehrlich kills plan for vote on slots

He blocks referendum, faulting `untested' bid for parlors on interstates

`Missed a great opportunity'

August 17, 2004|By David Nitkin and Greg Garland | David Nitkin and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. rejected a proposal from House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday to seek voter approval in November to legalize state-owned slot machine parlors, dousing the flickering hopes for a quick resolution to Maryland's protracted gambling debate.

Ehrlich, in a letter, called the speaker's plans for publicly owned gambling halls along interstate highways in Baltimore, Frederick and Harford counties and elsewhere "new and untested ... and, consequently, something I cannot accept."

Instead, the governor said, the General Assembly should hold a special session next month to pass legislation similar to a bill approved by the state Senate this year, authorizing slots at three racetracks and three nontrack locations.

"The plan that has passed the Senate, one widely supported in Annapolis and across the state, represents the collective wisdom of elected officials, outside experts, local government leaders and the public," Ehrlich wrote. "Regardless of past practices, the constitution should not be manipulated for political gain."

Busch and his lieutenants promptly rebuffed Ehrlich's suggestion, saying they saw no need to waste taxpayer money before lawmakers reconvene in January.

"He missed a great opportunity to bring this to rest and put it in front of the citizens of Maryland," Busch said. "If the governor does not want to go to referendum, it is finished for the summer, yes."

The latest developments mean that the slots debate will likely spill into next year's General Assembly session. By then, the governor will have to decide whether to expend more political capital to try to pass his signature initiative, which has been thwarted by Busch for two consecutive years.

And the speaker must determine whether he will yield to mounting pressure from track owners, deep-pocketed business interests such as attorney Peter G. Angelos and some members of his own leadership team.

Responding to attempts by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a slots supporter, to broker a compromise, Busch has been contemplating a constitutional amendment on the issue since this year's Assembly session ended in April without a gambling plan.

This month, he presented the governor with a draft bill for state-owned facilities in locations he said were selected to capture Marylanders leaving the state to gamble. All elements - including facility ownership, taxation rates and locations - were negotiable, the speaker said, save for one: The plan must go to the voters.

Busch said a referendum would force lawmakers and the governor to agree upon a plan that would withstand public scrutiny, and eliminate back-room deals that could make racetrack owners and other business interests wealthy.

Asked why he thought Ehrlich rejected the referendum concept, Busch said there were two possible reasons.

"Either he believes it won't win in November," Busch said. "Or, two, the concerns of special interests that have given over $6 million in [campaign] contributions and lobbying fees don't want a chance of going to referendum on a program that they don't believe is going to enrich them."

Ehrlich aides brushed off the criticism. "That is a ridiculous insult of both the governor and Annapolis," said communications director Paul E. Schurick. "He should know better."

Senate President Miller said in an interview last night that room for compromise still exists. "What the governor is saying is there needs to be a bill before there is talk of referendum," Miller said. "Right now, he and the speaker are far apart on the bill."

But aides to the governor agree that a referendum is unlikely, given a Sept. 8 deadline for ballot language. And Ehrlich staffers said Busch continues to damage his party and his own political future by standing in the way of slots.

"The speaker knows he is vulnerable," said Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni. "We lost over a billion dollars [in potential gambling revenue] from the speaker playing games, rather than following the will of the people."

A poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies to be released today found that 55 percent of voters favor slots, and 83 percent of Marylanders favor a referendum vote on the issue in November. Among slots supporters, 89 percent want a referendum.

Busch aides released records yesterday showing that Ehrlich, as a state delegate from Baltimore County, voted 10 times in favor of constitutional amendments. Since 1987, 23 amendments have been approved by voters on issues ranging from eminent domain authority in Prince George's and Montgomery counties to lame duck gubernatorial appointments.

"Here's the fact: Ehrlich is not interested in slot machines," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "He just wants a campaign issue."

Even without a referendum, some slots supporters say the issue will not go away, especially because Pennsylvania lawmakers recently approved up to 61,000 slot machines there and Maryland faces projected budget shortfalls.

"There are many issues that are going to come about that need funding, and this is one of the few ways you can generate this magnitude of funding," said William Rickman Jr., who has been pushing for slots at the Ocean Downs harness track he owns outside of Ocean City.

Alan Foreman, legal counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the failure of state leaders to agree to a slots plan is a disaster for the state's horse racing industry.

"While politicians squabble and try to figure out who gets the blame for this fiasco, we have trainers looking to relocate their operations to Pennsylvania and owners and breeders who are putting their farms up for sale," Foreman said. "They've pretty much given up that Maryland's going to be in a competitive situation."

Foreman said the industry stands to lose thousands of jobs, and that year-round racing in Maryland might come to an end.

To read the governor's letter, go to

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