In hours, slots plan fell apart

Deal: A failed last-minute attempt to put a gambling referendum on the ballot ended in frustration and finger-pointing.

September 10, 2004|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

It began with a telephone call last week to New York City while Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was attending the Republican National Convention.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was on the line, dusting off a plan for a referendum on slot machine gambling. Let's give it one more try, he said, before a fast-approaching deadline for putting the question on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Ehrlich was game.

So on Monday night, when most Marylanders were eating their last Labor Day burgers or laying out back-to-school clothes, the state's three top leaders gathered at the governor's mansion. They were joined by Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., one of Ehrlich's closest advisers. They sipped water and diet colas in an upstairs room.

It took them about an hour to agree on rudiments of a slots deal. Participants gave this account of the meeting:

You can have your bill for legalizing slots, House Speaker Michael E. Busch told the governor, but voters should ultimately decide in a referendum. And let's pick the three racetrack locations for slots and spell out where the three other slots facilities will go. Ehrlich and Miller agreed.

The governor expressed doubts that 85 votes in the House of Delegates could be raised to approve a proposed constitutional amendment, which would trigger the ballot-box vote. So the governor and Busch concurred that they would spend the next two days counting votes in the Democratic and Republican caucuses - possibly convening a special legislative session this week to get things done.

But the agreement shattered within hours. Here's why:

Opposition from Democratic lawmakers from Prince George's County and Baltimore City over whether and where slots would go in those jurisdictions.

A fundamental disagreement between Busch and Ehrlich over whether elements of the plan could be negotiated, or whether the deal was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

A miscommunication over how many Republican lawmakers would vote for the referendum plan and how detailed a constitutional amendment should be.

After a harried 48 hours that the speaker jokingly called "the longest two weeks of my life," Busch and Ehrlich had retreated to familiar positions.

The speaker said the governor didn't work hard enough to secure votes and shut the door to negotiations. Ehrlich supporters say the speaker didn't keep his word, because he abandoned an effort to raise votes for the Labor Day plan in the face of internal House opposition and instead wanted to change the proposal.

So Maryland is no closer to getting slot machines.

"Without the speaker's acquiescence, it's not going to happen," Ehrlich said yesterday on WBAL radio.

Slots have been Ehrlich's top priority since getting elected, and Miller, an aggressive slots supporter, has twice shepherded gambling bills through the Senate.

At the Monday meeting, the three leaders agreed to track locations in Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft, and other facilities near the Ravens stadium in Baltimore, at the Rocky Gap resort and in Cambridge.

But the next day, as Busch started to gauge support for the plan, opposition surfaced, particularly among delegates from Baltimore City and Prince George's, who objected to so many slots going into poor, black neighborhoods.

Slots "is a major negative impact on the African-American community, no question about it," said Del. Obie Patterson, a Prince George's Democrat and past chairman of the legislative black caucus. "I feel it's a major insult to just tell us, `It's in your face, you don't have a choice.' "

Ehrlich started hearing reports about the opposition and about Busch discussing proposals different from the Labor Day agreement.

"What happened is when he was faced with opposition from his own caucus as he met them individually trying to deliver votes, he kind of lost sight of the agreement that we had," said Miller.

By midday Wednesday, things were falling apart. "I got a call from the governor today at 3 and he said, `Look, the speaker is going back on his agreement,'" Miller said.

Busch denies he ever agreed to deliver the modified Senate slots plan as-is. He said he left the mansion "with the idea that there would be some kind of dialogue and exchange."

But others in the room had a different impression, said Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary. "Three people leave thinking one thing. Another thinks something else. Who is wrong?" he said.

With prospects declining, Ehrlich summoned Busch at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Ehrlich's aides presented their Republican vote tallies. Only two of 43 Republicans would support amending the constitution with dozens of pages of detail. For a simpler up-or-down ballot box vote on slots, there were 20 firm GOP "yes" votes. In either case, Ehrlich was not offering 35 of the 43 Republican votes he said he could deliver.

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