With fresh support from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., State House leaders have launched a last-gasp effort to place a slot-machine referendum on the November ballot and are discussing a plan that would authorize thousands of gambling devices at two sites in Baltimore.
Majority Democrats in the House of Delegates are to meet at 5 p.m. today to determine whether they have the votes to pass the proposal. If so, a special legislative session could take place as soon as Friday or, at latest, by the middle of next week in preparation for a Nov. 2 vote.
The effort comes after a secret meeting Monday night between Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in the governor's mansion that revived slots discussions.
At the Labor Day meeting, the governor agreed to consider a referendum - something he'd rejected three weeks earlier - if a vote count in the House showed enough support for a constitutional amendment to legalize slots.
Leaders in both parties were scrambling yesterday to determine where members stood, and whether they had the three-fifths majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
Talk is centering on a proposal, based largely on a plan the Senate passed earlier this year, that would allow 15,500 slot machines at six Maryland locations, including and a new "supertrack" facility proposed for Baltimore's sports stadium complex.
"Why would I be out here counting votes if the governor didn't agree to a referendum?" Busch said.
Last month, Ehrlich rejected a Busch request that the issue be placed before state voters in a referendum, saying that "regardless of past practices, the constitution should not be manipulated for political gain or to allow or prohibit things like gaming."
Yesterday, Ehrlich aides said the governor was willing to reconsider his stance as an accommodation to the speaker, who has been the state's chief legislative opponent of slot machines.
The Maryland Senate has passed gambling legislation for two consecutive years. Each time, the slots bill died in a House committee.
"The governor is as cool to the idea [of a referendum] as ever before," said Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick. "But he repeated [Monday] night that almost nothing is off the table. He is willing to continue to try to accommodate the speaker."
Busch has said that a referendum is warranted because it would compel state lawmakers to produce a gambling plan that would withstand public scrutiny and not unjustly enrich racetrack owners and other business interests.
Busch said yesterday that Miller organized the meeting, and that the Senate president and the governor are insisting on a version of a slots bill that he does not support.
"Do we think we had a better plan? Yes," Busch said. "But the governor agreed to go to referendum. He wanted his bill."
'Last, best hope'
All sides agree, Miller said, that they would like to see an end to the slots debate.
"This week is the last, best hope for those people who support a referendum to get their idea into play," Miller said. "Everybody wants to put this matter behind us. Delaware has moved forward. Pennsylvania has moved forward. West Virginia has moved forward."
State law requires that the Maryland Board of Elections certify the content of ballots 55 days before the presidential election, which means a deadline of today.
But elections officials say they have some flexibility and could push the deadline to next Wednesday because the ballot can be altered until Sept. 15. In a special session, lawmakers could also change the deadline.
"We always have to anticipate there could be a late change," said state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone. "If the General Assembly wants to have a special session [for a referendum], we have to try to accommodate their wishes."
Still, to prepare for a vote on slots would mean a rush effort that could include committee meetings over the weekend and a final vote next week. Lawmakers were not supposed to reconvene until January.
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican and minority whip, said he was "not optimistic" that the issue would be settled soon. But his caucus distributed an e-mail message to its members, telling them to be prepared in case events change.
Yesterday's flurry of activity on gambling has raised the prospect of a sooner-than-expected end to a protracted debate that has consumed since the election of the Republican governor. Ehrlich has suffered damage in the eyes of some observers because he has been unable to secure passage of his top priority.
Meanwhile, Republicans have hammered Busch as an obstructionist, blocking the wishes of a popular statewide elected official.
The Senate version
Miller and Ehrlich continue to push the Senate version of a slots bill, which would authorize gambling devices at six locations, including three racetracks. The Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, whose ownership includes Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp. and the family of Joseph A. De Francis, would get slots, as would Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.
The Senate bill would allow three unspecified locations, but Busch said yesterday that he wants the sites spelled out so voters could make informed decisions. The locations would include the proposed new supertrack near the Baltimore stadiums; in Cambridge, possibly at the Hyatt hotel complex; and at the Rocky Gap resort lodge in Flintstone.
Many neighbors of the stadium complex are troubled by talk of a slots facility in their midst.
In Baltimore's southwest neighborhoods, residents have heard about a possible slots emporium going up near their homes.
"This is just adding more stress to a community that is already stressed to the max," said Betty Bland-Thomas, president of the Sharp-Leadenhall Community Planning Committee Inc.
A slots facility, she said, would undermine efforts by homeowners to improve their neighborhood, including working with the city to renovate dilapidated public housing and build affordable housing on vacant lots.
Bland-Thomas said residents feel insulted because no one from the state has taken the time to meet with them to talk about their concerns.
"All of this worries me," she said. "Slots would be a bad fit."
Money and votes
Other slots opponents are worried that their voices would be drowned out in a cascade of pro-gambling advertising money that would likely flood the state if a ballot question is authorized.
"If it does go to referendum, we're talking guaranteed tens of millions of dollars in deceptive and misleading ads in a very short time period by gambling interests," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.
"If the speaker, Senate president and governor support an initiative, and if they call a special session, that means they have the votes," said Franchot, a staunch slots opponent. "We're not naive. ... Apparently, the dam finally broke."
Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson, Greg Garland and Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.