Busch, Ehrlich talk slots

no progress

Miller urges compromise between competing bills

April 09, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

In a final push to legalize slot machine gambling before the General Assembly adjourns at midnight Monday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. met privately yesterday with his chief opponent on the issue, House Speaker Michael E. Busch. But neither side announced progress.

A few hours earlier, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had stepped up his lobbying, pleading with a House committee to resolve discrepancies between versions of slots bills that each chamber passed earlier this year.

"Take the best elements of both bills, and fashion a compromise that works," Miller asked the House Ways and Means Committee, which held a hearing yesterday -- three days before the end of the session -- on the slots plan passed by the Senate in February.

"Find a way to make a bill happen for the schoolchildren of the state. Not the politicians. Not the [track] operators," Miller said.

House leaders continue to insist that they would lose votes if they changed any element of the slots bill adopted last month by the slimmest possible majority. It would authorize 9,500 machines in Anne Arundel, Harford, Frederick and Allegany counties.

Still, Ehrlich and Miller say a solution could be reached. Ehrlich held a closed-door meeting with the speaker late yesterday to discuss the legislation and whether a final agreement is possible.

"The speaker and I have agreed to make no comment in regard to our discussions, so we'll talk to you later," Ehrlich said after he left.

Busch said last night he told the governor he was not optimistic that a slots bill could pass the House again this year, because some members now are absent with illnesses. He said the issue was not a high priority in the final days.

"I said it takes a lot of work and a lot of preparation, and I didn't think we could go in that direction," Busch said. "There will be people bringing it up and talking about it, but I said I thought it would be very difficult to re-create that vote."

At yesterday's Ways and Means hearing, Ehrlich administration budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said a slots plan was needed to pay for important components of the educational funding initiative known as the Thornton plan.

The governor wants to use slots proceeds, he said, to give more money to jurisdictions such as Baltimore, where the cost of hiring and retaining teachers is higher.

"We wish that you would work one more time over this weekend, to craft a compromise," DiPaula said.

Miller told the committee that differences between the two plans could be split. The House bill gives 30 percent of slots proceeds to operators; the Senate plan would give 36 percent to track owners. Make it 33 percent, Miller said. The House approved 9,500 machines at four locations; the Senate has 15,500 at seven locations. Make it 11,500 machines, Miller said.

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director, said the governor was willing to compromise on any component of the slots bill, save one: no slots near Ocean City.

"Anything else is open to negotiations. Anything at all," he said.

But, he said, "at this point, there is no reason to think the House is going to move."

House leaders concurred.

Still, some work got under way yesterday. Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and head of a subcommittee that handles gambling issues, said: "I do have permission to begin to work on it."

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