Miller ends slots bill, accenting Ehrlich rift

He says governor lacked initiative on his proposal

General Assembly

March 23, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was the governor's chief ally on slot machines for the past three years, ramming Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gambling legislation through his chamber and struggling mightily to broker a compromise with the House of Delegates.

But yesterday, Miller quietly pulled the plug on what has long been the governor's top legislative priority, canceling a slots hearing in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Barring changes, this will be the fourth consecutive year the legislature has failed to pass a bill.

"It takes two to tango in the legislative process, and we need some initiative and hard work on the part of the governor, which we haven't seen," Miller said. "And we need some movement on the part of the House, and we haven't seen that either."

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the budget committee, called the slots proposal "100 percent" dead.

The hearing cancellation reveals a growing rift between two of the state's most powerful political leaders, members of opposing parties who had little to bind them other than a desire to see more gambling in the state.

It's no secret that Miller wants to see a Democrat elected governor this year, so his willingness to help Ehrlich, a Republican, has been waning for months. And with the election season upon him, Ehrlich may be in no mood to spend valuable political capital on a lost cause.

Over the years, Ehrlich has pitched slots revenue as a solution for a number of problems, including closing a budget shortfall, saving horse racing, and paying for school construction and boosting teacher pensions. But with Maryland looking at an enormous budget surplus, the financial need for slots has withered, as has lawmakers' interest in the contentious issue.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said he would like to see the governor's proposal resuscitated. He said that Ehrlich has put "countless hours in on the issue with both lawmakers and the public."

Asked about Miller's call for more action from Ehrlich, Fawell said: "This coming from somebody who is canceling a hearing." Currie said there is simply slots fatigue on his committee.

"We did most of the heavy lifting," he said. "I think everyone realizes it's a losing issue."

Bill hearings are nearly always held when legislation is filed early enough in the annual 90-day session. Without a hearing, it is unlikely that the governor's bill will come up for a vote in the committee.

Ehrlich ran on a pro-slots platform in 2002 and has called his victory that year over former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a slots opponent, a mandate to bring the machines to Maryland.

At the time, the state was facing a crushing revenue shortfall, with millions of Maryland dollars being spent on legalized slots in nearby Delaware and West Virginia. Owners of the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft tracks said slots customers would help revive a dying industry with a long history in the state.

But each year since, proposals have stalled with the House and Senate unable to reach an agreement.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that this year Ehrlich has, for practical reasons, backed away from the more public push for slots that has been the hallmark of his administration.

"There are a number of issues on which he's waving the white flag," Frosh said, pointing to medical malpractice reform as another example. "He doesn't expect to get anything done."

Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said he thinks Ehrlich's commitment to slots is as fierce as ever. He vowed to be back next year and said slots are necessary to save horse racing.

"It's an election year; it's always more difficult to ask a legislator to take a tough vote in an election year," Evans said.

Slots aside, all has not been well between the Senate president and governor. Miller set the tone for the session early on with a promise to stick it to his rivals.

GOP leaders are "going to be flying high, but we're going to get together and we're going to shoot them down. We're going to put them in the ground, and it'll be 10 years before they crawl out again," he said during a state Democratic Party luncheon to kick off the session.

During the session, Ehrlich and House Speaker Michael E. Busch - who has been pilloried by Republicans for the past three years for opposing slots - have been meeting regularly. Miller has passed on several of those leadership gatherings.

Miller has also championed the legislative inquiry into Ehrlich's hiring and firing practices, an effort to determine if state workers have been fired for political reasons or unjustly. The GOP has railed against the effort, calling it election-year politics at its worst.

"There's no question there's a lot of friction between Miller and the governor," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican. "I think Miller brought it on. Doggone, he can just do some really silly things sometimes."

The Senate has also treated Ehrlich's agenda as an afterthought, throwing together a daylong series of public hearings on unrelated bills, a whirlwind that left Ehrlich's staffers frustrated and stunned. Senators are also considering a bill that would require certain members of Ehrlich's Cabinet to be reconfirmed should he win re-election.

Aaron Meisner, an investment adviser and coordinating chairman of StopSlotsMaryland, said the slots legislation was a victim of the leaders' soured relationship.

"There was so much bad blood between Ehrlich and Miller that I wasn't all that surprised to see that," he said.

With Busch and the House not willing to budge on the matter, Miller put it more succinctly. "I don't believe in futile efforts," he said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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