When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. introduced his slot machine gambling bill for the third year in a row, he said he feared he was about to watch a bad movie over again.
So far, the plot has been the same: The state Senate passed a slightly modified version of his plan by a comfortable margin Friday - just as it did last year and the year before.
But the prospect of a different ending may become clearer this week as members of the House of Delegates attempt to craft a compromise that can pass muster in a committee and make it to a floor vote.
Efforts in the House are coalescing around a proposal by three Baltimore County Democrats that would allow far fewer slot machines than the plans approved by the governor and Senate. It also would put them in Republican-heavy areas, not Baltimore City and Prince George's County, where delegates have voiced nearly unanimous opposition to additional gambling.
The bill borrows heavily from a House Ways and Means Committee report last year that sought to avoid guaranteeing slot licenses to racetrack owners - an element of Senate and Ehrlich bills that House Speaker Michael E. Busch has called an unjust entitlement to the politically connected.
"I think we can come up with something," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House subcommittee dealing with slots bills and who met with other delegates Thursday and Friday. He hopes to get a bill to the House floor as early as this week. "It's going to be tight-wire, but we'll craft a bill that can go forward," he said.
Ehrlich, who vowed this year not to waste any more political capital on slots, has not been deeply involved in lobbying in the House so far this year. His point man on slots, Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., told the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday that the governor was willing to negotiate just about anything if the legislature could pass a bill.
House leaders are under increasing pressure from slots backers to pass a gambling bill this year. Pennsylvania legalized slots last summer, polls show a solid majority of Marylanders favor expanded gambling and some powerful Democrats warn that Republicans will blast them as obstructionists.
Some slots proponents have said it's no coincidence that the bill the House is using as a vehicle this year is sponsored by Dels. Eric M. Bromwell, Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and James E. Malone Jr. All are Democrats from conservative Baltimore County districts where Ehrlich won handily two years ago.
Bromwell, the lead sponsor, said he tried to combine elements of slots proposals over the past few years, in hopes of finding a compromise that can win support in the House. He said his constituents are frustrated at the legislature's inability to pass slots.
"I want money to go to school construction. It's a major issue in my district," Bromwell said. "I'm responsible to vote for new revenue, and my constituents don't want new taxes."
The bill would allow up to 8,500 slot machines at locations near major highways in Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Frederick and Harford counties. The operators and exact locations for the facilities would be decided by a commission with representatives from the House speaker, Senate president and governor - two named by each - and led by the state treasurer, who is chosen by the legislature.
The bill that passed the Senate last week would allow 15,500 machines at seven locations around the state, four of which would have to be racetracks. The locations and operators would be decided by a commission dominated by appointees of the governor. Ehrlich's initial proposal was similar to the Senate bill.
The Senate proposal is expected to generate about $915 million a year for the state when fully implemented. The House proposal would generate about $625 million.
In both the Senate bill and the House bill, money would go to support the horse racing industry and school construction, and to help communities where slots parlors are located handle infrastructure improvements and other needs.
But unlike the Senate's bill, Bromwell's proposal would put no money into funding annual educational operating expenses and instead would give local development grants to the counties and Baltimore City.
Despite the major differences, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he saw room for an agreement.
"Nothing is a nonstarter. Everything is a starter at this point," Miller said. "Any move from this point on is progress."
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, said the details of any particular proposal do not matter much at this point.
The compromise that senators and delegates worked out on medical malpractice reform in December's special legislative session showed that when the two chambers negotiate, they can come out with a product very different from what either passed to begin with, he said.
"I think we're going to keep an open mind," O'Donnell said of House Republicans, whose votes would be key to passing a slots bill. "We're willing to work on something that is mutually agreeable to this body, knowing if we do pass a bill it will be a matter of intense negotiations with the Senate."
But passage in the House is no sure thing.
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said a large number of delegates would not vote for slots under any circumstances. And Minor Carter, an anti-slots lobbyist, said delegates who refused to consider slots in their jurisdictions but would vote for them elsewhere ran the risk of being branded as hypocrites.
"It's like the saying: `Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die,'" Carter said. "Everybody wants the money, but nobody wants them in their jurisdiction."