Plan to hold referendum on slot machines breaks down

September 09, 2004|By David Nitkin, Greg Garland and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin, Greg Garland and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Plans for a November referendum on legalizing slot machines collapsed yesterday after a hectic day of closed-door meetings and political posturing that ended with allies of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch trading charges of bad-faith negotiating.

"It's done, done, done, done, done," Ehrlich declared during an evening meeting with reporters in the governor's mansion. "I told you all not to get your hopes up."

Ehrlich's comments came shortly after House Democrats emerged from a private session declaring that they had the 85 votes needed to pass a bill to put the referendum on the ballot - assuming Ehrlich could persuade 35 Republicans to sign on.

Democrats said they wanted the governor to negotiate on the final form of a bill to face voter approval, and they would deliver the votes to pass it.

"We have the votes to bring this to referendum," Busch said. "We're ready to go to referendum. ... I'm ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the governor. We want it to go to special session now."

But the governor said repeatedly yesterday that he did not want to haggle over details, and would only entertain talk of a referendum based on a slots plan that passed the Senate earlier this year. He accused Busch of backing away from a commitment he made during a secret meeting in the governor's mansion on Labor Day.

Ehrlich said Busch agreed to rally votes among majority Democrats for the governor's preferred plan. Instead, the governor said, Democrats were divided - with many wanting to change the Senate plan or push for a radically different House version.

"Today was pretty much a waste of time," Ehrlich said. "I wanted 85 names in concrete [and] public pronouncements for our bill. Today, I have no names and a very different bill."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller also said Busch seemed to change his message over the past two days, and, as a result, talk of a special legislative session within the next week to produce a referendum was probably over. Lawmakers would have to pass a slots measure in a special session by next week to meet a deadline for getting the gambling question on the Nov. 2 ballot.

"Unless some miracle happens, and I don't see that at this point in time. ... I don't see any bridging of the gap in the next few days," said Miller, a Democrat.

"I'm not condemning him [Busch]," Miller said. "What I think happened is he didn't have the time, focus, energy or attention to deliver his caucus' votes.

"The speaker had a vision, and he was able to share it with the governor and myself," he said, referring to the holiday meeting. "But he was not able to communicate it and articulate it to his caucus."

Democratic House members countered that it was Ehrlich who was reneging on a commitment because he did not demonstrate he could deliver a majority of Republican votes to pass a constitutional amendment. During an afternoon meeting with Busch, the governor's staff said that perhaps 20 of 43 Republicans would vote for a constitutional amendment.

The governor's assertion that components of a Senate bill were non-negotiable was unreasonable, Democrats said.

"It appears that one or two individuals feel the decision should be made only by them," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "Quite honestly, they [Miller and Ehrlich] are getting cold feet. They proffered a solution, and they take it away."

Added Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of House Environmental Matters Committee: "You can't keep pulling the rug out from under good-faith negotiations."

Yesterday's events continued a roller-coaster ride on the slots issue, which has consumed Annapolis since Ehrlich's election with no resolution in sight. The Senate has passed a slots plan for two consecutive years, while the House has killed it.

The speaker said he favors a referendum because it would force lawmakers to pass a bill that would withstand public scrutiny and not unduly enrich wealthy business interests.

Talk of a referendum - after an earlier effort over the summer fell apart - was revived during a Labor Day meeting between Busch, Ehrlich and Miller at the governor's mansion. All agreed they would spend 48 hours to count votes, and make a final effort to meet a ballot-writing deadline next week.

As a result, lawmakers, lobbyists and other business interests worked feverishly yesterday to make sure their interests were heard.

The family of Peter G. Angelos, a well-connected trial lawyer and majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, resumed negotiations to try to buy Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track just off the Washington Beltway in Prince George's County.

John Davey, an attorney for Rosecroft, said that the track's owners have continued to talk to the Angelos family, even after rejecting their most recent offer and returning a $500,000 deposit.

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