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Compromise is unlikely in slots standoff

With just four weeks left in the legislative session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller appears to be left with few good options in his bid to wring a compromise on the slot machine gambling bill from his counterpart in the House of Delegates.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said his chamber would reject any changes to its version of a bill legalizing slot machines, approved by the narrowest possible margin Feb. 25.

Miller calls the House bill unacceptable - the Senate plans to send the House an exact copy of the more expansive slots bill passed by the Senate last month - but that leaves the Senate president to hope that Busch will decide on his own to move the issue forward.

"I could stop all the House legislation. I could hold up the budget. I don't want to do that," Miller said. "I'm not trying to pressure anybody."

Miller is a master at Annapolis maneuvering and has strong tools at his disposal to put pressure on the House leader. He can kill Busch's pet bills, refuse to negotiate on the budget or publicly paint Busch as an obstructionist who will destroy the Democratic Party.

Trouble is, he tried all that last year, and some of it the year before, to no avail. And with elections on the horizon, he said he's not eager to shut down the General Assembly over one issue.

And pro-slots lobbyists and lawmakers say that if Busch is willing to take the political heat of being the man who killed slots three years in a row, there's little anyone can do to make him change his mind.

"In this business, you never say never. We never thought he'd pass a bill," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, the chairman of the Senate committee that handles slots. "But to get him closer to where we are is going to be very difficult."

Busch said Friday that he saw no indication that delegates are willing to consider other slots options. In fact, he said, it might be difficult to get a majority on the same bill a second time.

The speaker resisted the notion that he is to blame if slots don't pass this year, saying the House worked to craft a bill that provides the best deal for the state and keeps slots out of jurisdictions that don't want them.

"The House has made a good-faith effort in working with everyone," Busch said. "No matter what it is, it's not enough."

Miller wouldn't say what compromises he would be willing to make in his slots bill, but he said he would make some, if Busch would sit down and negotiate.

"Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas," Miller said.

Two approaches

The possibility for compromise is complicated by significant differences in the two chambers' approaches to slots.

The Senate version, which is close to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal, would allow 15,500 machines at seven locations around the state, four of which would be racetracks. None of the locations is spelled out in the bill but would be selected by a commission controlled by the governor. The proceeds would go toward school construction and annual education expenses.

The House version would allow 9,500 machines at locations near major highways in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties. The exact sites and slots operators would be decided through competitive bidding by a commission controlled by the legislature. Proceeds would go toward school construction and grants to the counties but would not pay for any of the state's operating expenses.

Miller has said he objects to nearly every provision of the House bill. He said it wouldn't add any money to the state's coffers to pay for the Thornton education funding plan, would be difficult to implement because of the conflicts arising out of the selection commission, and wouldn't do enough to help the horse racing industry - the original impetus for bringing slots to Maryland.

Complications

But slots politics in the House have grown complicated. Delegates from Baltimore City and Prince George's County have voted to oppose slots in their jurisdictions, and many of them oppose slots in general. So do most delegates from Montgomery County.

Cecil County commissioners object to slots there, Baltimore County officials don't want slots at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium, and the governor won't accept slots in Ocean City.

The House bill was designed to avoid putting slots in those jurisdictions, but the locations it names have grown problematic as well. Since the bill passed, local officials in Frederick - who ultimately could control the presence of slots in their county through zoning - have strongly objected to expanded gambling there.

And some delegates from Harford County have said the only reason they voted for the House bill was the expectation that the Senate would heavily amend it.

"Most of the farmers and constituents in my district can live with a limited slots program at the tracks or at some destination locations, but we don't see Harford County as one of those types of locations," said Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican and chairman of the Harford delegation. "If it came out of a conference committee with Harford County in it, I would be most likely not to support it."

Anti-slots lobbyist W. Minor Carter said since the Senate bill doesn't specify where slots parlors would be, they could be anywhere - and that will make it more difficult for many delegates to support the bill.

"The pressure is mounting to do something, but the pressure is also mounting on delegates not to vote to put them in their jurisdictions," Carter said. "Maybe we should buy some land in Pennsylvania and put a slot barn up there."

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