Some form of slot machine gambling legislation passed in the House of Delegates and in the Senate this year - but with the General Assembly session ending last night, slots still were not legal in Maryland, leaving a potent issue on the table for the coming gubernatorial election.
"When you figure it out, tell me," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
For the past three years, slot machine gambling has been a defining issue in the political infighting between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislature. It has divided Democrats in Annapolis as they debate the best course for the state - and as their party looks to unseat Ehrlich in 2006.
Even before the session was to be gaveled to a close last night, recriminations were flying between slots backers and opponents as they sought to define how the issue will be perceived by voters as attention shifts from lawmaking to campaigning.
Legislators this session came closer than ever to enacting a slots program. The Senate quickly passed its version of Ehrlich's signature initiative. The House, by the slimmest margin possible, passed a stripped-down slots bill of its own.
But the Senate and the governor wouldn't accept the House bill, and the House leadership wouldn't negotiate, leaving slots to die quietly at the end of the session.
Many of those involved in the debate believe a slots bill could be introduced again in 2006, but few think such a contentious issue has a chance of passing in an election year. The governor himself said yesterday that the issue is effectively dead until after next year's election.
That leaves plenty of time before voters go to the polls for politicians to lay blame - or claim credit - for slots' demise.
Both Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the driving forces for slots in Annapolis, indicated yesterday that the passage of a gambling bill in the House does nothing to keep them from blaming Speaker Michael E. Busch for the continued lack of a slots program in the state.
"He's used the power of his speakership to thwart the will of the governor and the majority of his constituents and the majority of the people of the state of Maryland again and again and again and again," Miller said.
But Busch defended the process and the final product that came out of his chamber.
"It's always somebody else's fault but theirs," he said last night. "This year, he [Ehrlich] asked us to pass a bill. He had input into a bill. He got to check the locations he wanted and didn't want. Before the ink was dry, he was complaining.
"When does this become the guy in the mirror's fault?"
Supporters of the House slots bill and opponents of gambling say the issue crumbled amid jockeying by moneyed interests looking to profit from slots along with scrambling by local leaders to prevent slot machines from being allowed in their jurisdictions.
House delegations from Baltimore City and Prince George's County voted not to allow slots in their back yards. Montgomery County has always strongly opposed slots there. The majority of Cecil County commissioners oppose slots, Baltimore County officials have said they won't accept them at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, and the Frederick County commissioners are considering zoning law changes to prevent construction of a slots parlor.
"Three years ago, we had jurisdictions that said they supported slots. Now we have in the vast majority of jurisdictions their elected officials saying they don't want slots and have been very forthright about that, so I'm not sure how you write a slots bill," said W. Minor Carter, an anti-slots lobbyist.
Del. Eric M. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-sponsored the House slots bill, said he thinks the competing interests of those who want slots helped prevent the Senate from taking up his bill.
"From the get-go, even before the election ... there's been more pressure on the Senate to pass a bill that, quite frankly, is racetrack owner-oriented, and that's not necessarily a bill that brings in the most revenue for Maryland," Bromwell said.
Slots proponents haven't given up on getting a bill before the next election, a move they say could solve the state's fiscal problems by getting Maryland gamblers to spend their money in-state instead of going to Delaware, West Virginia or, soon, Pennsylvania.
"There's too much at stake both in terms of the hemorrhaging of tax dollars and the continued decline of the horse-racing industry," Evans said.
Miller said yesterday that he thinks the governor should call a special session and, essentially, lock the two chambers in until they come up with a deal on slots. This interim is the last realistic chance for a slots bill before at least 2007, he said.
"If it's going to be done, it's got to be done before the politics take hold," Miller said. "As of next January, it's going to be no holds barred. It's going to be a slugfest."
If a slots bill fails to pass again next year, gambling could be a major issue in the 2006 elections. Ehrlich has made clear that he will make the legislature's inability to authorize the increasingly popular form of gambling a centerpiece of his campaign.
Democrats have long theorized that Ehrlich was less interested in seeing slots pass this year than in having the issue to use as a campaign theme in 2006. But that argument was diminished by the governor's strong lobbying effort, which got 35 of 43 Republicans to vote for the House slots bill.
Ehrlich said yesterday that he never wanted slots to be a second-term issue, but he suggested that he thinks it's a winner for him.
"It's been made very clear to me that the Democratic leadership will not allow a slots referendum and my name to be on the ballot in the same year," he said. "In their view, that would guarantee my re-election."
His two biggest potential rivals, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, have staked out differing positions on the issue. Duncan opposes slots outright, while O'Malley has sought a middle ground, calling slots a "pretty morally bankrupt way to fund education" but saying he wouldn't object to a limited slots-at-tracks program.
Duncan said yesterday that time spent debating slots is wasted and could be used instead to discuss issues he thinks are of greater long-term importance to the state. But he said he would be glad to draw a contrast between his position and Ehrlich's.
"It really shows where you want the state to be," Duncan said. "I don't want to spend 20 years debating expanded gambling in the state. I want to spend 20 years growing the technology industry in Maryland."
O'Malley said he's sick of slots talk.
"I'll discuss any issue with people with good will, but it is not and should not be the issue that defines this state," he said. "There are more important issues to deal with."