Busch delays slots bill hearing

House Speaker Michael E. Busch put on hold yesterday action on the Senate's slot machines bill, overruling the plans of a committee chairwoman to have hearings on the legislation this week.

Busch's move occurred as the lawyer for Timonium Racetrack accused the Ehrlich administration of reneging on its agreement to give the track $12 million in gambling revenue in exchange for an agreement to forgo slots.

Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson said yesterday that she had scheduled a hearing on the Senate bill -- already postponed once -- for tomorrow.

Hixson, regarded as a leading House backer of slots, disclosed her plan for a hearing in a brief interview after the House session yesterday morning. The Montgomery County Democrat added that the committee might vote Friday or Saturday on the bill, which is Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top legislative priority.

Told of that decision about noon, Busch said the situation would be quickly "clarified." About 90 minutes later, Busch said the hearing was off.

The confusion lingered, however, as Hixson said early in the afternoon that a sponsor-only hearing on the bill could be held late this week. Still later, the speaker, who appoints and can remove committee chairmen, said flatly that no hearing would be held until he agreed.

Busch explained that he wants the Ways and Means and Appropriations committees to concentrate on completing work on the state budget and a companion revenue bill.

"When we feel it's appropriate, we'll have a hearing, but I want them focused on the budget," he said. "If you throw a slots hearing in the middle of it, they are going to be besieged because nobody seems to have any interest in anything except that issue."

Hixson said her scheduling of the hearing, after days of public statements by Busch that he intended to delay action on the bill, was not a sign of revolt in Democratic ranks.

Late yesterday, a Senate committee raised the stakes in conference committee by approving budget legislation with an amendment making its passage contingent on the success of the slots bill. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has threatened to keep the General Assembly in session past its scheduled April 7 adjournment if the House doesn't agree to slots.

The Senate's version of slots legislation was drawing fire for eliminating money for the nonprofit Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, which runs Timonium Racetrack.

In a letter to Busch, the State Fair's legal counsel complained that Timonium isn't getting slots money it was promised. William F. C. Marlow Jr. said the Ehrlich administration and the owners of the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks told State Fair officials they would be "taken care of" if they would abandon efforts to put slots at Timonium.

Marlow, who could not be reached for comment about the letter, wrote that the State Fair was supposed to get 0.8 percent of gross slots revenue, or $12 million a year. "Then, to the Fair's surprise and complete dismay, the governor ... amended his bill by cutting our share by $6.5 million in favor of the other tracks," Marlow wrote. After the State Fair pushed the industry and administration to live up to its promises, the Senate cut Timonium's share to zero, Marlow wrote.

Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, denied any commitment. "There were no promises and no ironclad guarantees," she said.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun