Baltimore Sun

Md. politicians still at impasse on slots

The impending arrival of up to 61,000 slot machines in neighboring Pennsylvania has yet to break an impasse among Maryland politicians that is preventing an expansion of gambling here.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. intensified yesterday his call for the Maryland General Assembly to follow Pennsylvania's lead by passing a slot-machine plan, but legislative leaders responded that the governor's lack of back-office work on the issue belies the impassioned rhetoric he delivers in public.

During opening remarks at a state Board of Public Works meeting, Ehrlich asked House Speaker Michael E. Busch to drop his opposition, which has killed the governor's slots plan for two consecutive years. A huge gambling bill signed this week by Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell requires a prompt response by Maryland, the governor said.

"There are a clear majority of votes in the Maryland House of Delegates - both parties - for slots," Ehrlich said. "The House Democratic leadership has a different viewpoint on this issue, and I respect it. At the very least, however, given the results of the 2002 election, given what that leadership knows to be the majority view in the state of Maryland, I ask that whether in a special session or next January, a slots bill be brought to the floor, debated and voted on, up or down. Finally."

Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller questioned yesterday whether the governor was devoting sufficient attention to the issue to resolve the debate quickly. Ehrlich might be content with accumulating political points, they indicated, by blaming the legislature for the defeat of his slots plan.

Busch said he asked for a meeting with Ehrlich six weeks ago to discuss authorizing a November ballot referendum on a gambling plan but that he has received no response.

"The governor ought to start trying to communicate with people other than through the Board of Public Works," the speaker said. "The governor has a communications problem. That's what the governor has."

Miller questioned the governor's work habits and his unwillingness to compromise to resolve disputed elements of a gambling plan and a medical malpractice reform plan, another topic that Ehrlich wants to address in a special session.

"I think there is an overriding lack of work ethic in regard to the administration," Miller said. "People have to show up for work in the morning, rather than campaigning or raising money."

Ehrlich communications chief Paul E. Schurick said the governor's office would have no response. The Senate has passed the governor's slots plan for two consecutive years, and the House has killed it.

The governor will not meet with Busch on slots, Schurick said, until the speaker presents a plan Ehrlich could accept.

"When the time comes to talk about a proposal, great," Schurick said. "Otherwise, there is nothing to talk about. A meeting with the speaker right now is a waste of time."

In sum, there appears to be little progress among the state's three most influential political figures despite Pennsylvania's joining Delaware, West Virginia and New Jersey as states within easy driving distance that offer casino-style gambling.

It is widely agreed that a consensus among Ehrlich, Busch and Miller is needed to convene a special session this summer to consider slots.

Busch says he will agree to a summer session only if the governor accepts a referendum.

"The benefits of a referendum are the limits you put on the expansion of gambling," Busch said yesterday, because voters would be asked to amend the state constitution to specify the location and operation of slots.

"If you don't do a referendum and you do a bill, it is going to come back every year," Busch said, as bar owners, casino companies and other businesses seek more outlets.

Ehrlich said he opposes amending the constitution for slots. He also said he doesn't think a gambling bill would receive the three-fifths majority in the 141-member House needed to alter the constitution.

The governor wants slots predominantly at racetracks, and he said Maryland horses and breeders are moving to states with larger, slots-supplemented purses.

The state Board of Elections said Sept. 8 is the deadline for submission of ballot language for a referendum in November.