GOP shuns slots proposal

Special session is expected despite decision of Senate leaders

October 04, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Senate Republican leaders said yesterday that they would not vote for the governor's slots proposal during a special session of the General Assembly, potentially jeopardizing the critical cross-party partnership that has been necessary in the past to get a divisive gambling bill through the chamber.

Sen. David Brinkley, the minority leader, chided Gov. Martin O'Malley for not releasing details of his proposal to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland before his expected call for a special session. Brinkley, who met with O'Malley yesterday, said he and his Republican colleagues will withhold their votes for slots until the administration considers spending cuts.

Joined by Senate Minority Whip Allan H. Kittleman and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Brinkley said that the Republicans would be open to a slots bill when the General Assembly convenes for its annual three-month session in January - when lawmakers review the budget for the next fiscal year.

"We feel the state has a spending problem, it does not have a revenue problem," Brinkley said during a meeting with reporters. "And to be a part of helping raise revenues at some specially called session, merely to raise taxes on the taxpayers, we think is totally inappropriate."

O'Malley believes a special session is still a must, aides said. In a brief statement to reporters issued after the GOP announcement, O'Malley made a plea for a collaborative effort to address the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

"Over the last four years, the people of Maryland saw very clearly how easy it is for their government to bicker and accomplish nothing," O'Malley said in a news release. "But our challenge now is to find consensus and get things done before the very people we are sworn to serve and protect are harmed by obstruction and inaction in Annapolis."

The GOP move, however, is an unexpected setback for O'Malley, who is fighting resistance to a special session from House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and slots opponent. The governor has the authority to call a special session, but without a strong bipartisan coalition for slots in the Senate, where members are more apt to pass a bill than in the House of Delegates, the governor is bound to have trouble getting a measure approved.

In 2005, for example, a slots proposal slipped through the Senate with support from 26 senators and with 21 opposed; nine Republicans voted for the measure, five voted against it. But those Republicans were pushing a measure backed by a Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and that wasn't packaged with a series of tax increases.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he ultimately can find the 24 votes needed to get a bill passed - even with Republican senators voting no. "I think we can get to them in the Senate but not in the House unless the speaker is on board," Miller said.

But Miller appeared to backtrack on the need for a special session to address the budget, saying it is the governor's decision.

"It's certainly a setback for those people who want less in terms of taxation and who believe that we need to preserve farmland and who believe we need to keep Maryland money in Maryland," Miller said. "It's not about slots so much as it is keeping Maryland personal disposable income in Maryland and not seeing it go across the border to Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia."

The Senate GOP announcement comes two days after their House counterparts expressed their opposition to a special session, giving the Republicans modest heft in a budget discussion that has so far been conducted among Democratic leaders and in Democratic caucus meetings. Signaling the unlikely alliances due to form as the budget debate gets under way, Brinkley's comments also brought cheers from anti-slots Democrats.

"We welcome their support," said Minor Carter, an anti-slots lobbyist.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and slots opponent, said he's "happy to welcome the Republicans to the team," but he called their unwillingness to debate slots in a special session an "elementary school tactic."

"It's pretty much a cliche, but they managed to rise above principle," Frosh said. "They're against taxes so they want slots, but they're not going to vote for slots because, why? It's logic that defies any kind of explanation."

Busch said the GOP position should affect the governor's decision on a special session, which he has been expected to call for early November.

"I think the fact that the Republicans have come out and stated their position gives more information to the governor to make the decision he has to make," the speaker said.

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