With the blessing of some ranking legislators, the General Assembly appears poised to take up the long-dormant question of legalizing slot machines in Maryland.
For the first time in years, slots supporters believe they may have momentum on their side after a series of recent comments from influential lawmakers.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., for example, is joining some of his top lieutenants in supporting a bill that would send the question of slot machines directly to the people in a referendum next year.
His counterpart in the Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller, calls it "inevitable" that Maryland will ultimately embrace slot machines - and has created a new Senate committee to take up the issue.
Perhaps most importantly, slots proponents are anticipating the end of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's term in office after next year's election. Glendening has ruled out new gambling in the state while he is governor.
The presumed front-runner to succeed him, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, also opposes slots - but has refused to follow Glendening's lead and unequivocally preclude legalizing them here.
Lawmakers on both sides of the issue agree that Townsend's ever-so-slight opening, coupled with the support from legislative leaders, is regenerating interest in slots.
"This has been an issue that's sort of been under the surface," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and ardent opponent of slot machine gambling. "Now the governor is at the end of his term, and you've got the lead goose who hasn't taken an official position against it. It looks like this issue is starting to gather momentum."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a key supporter of bringing slots to the state, says Maryland has lost enough revenue to out-of-state gambling.
He said last week that he will soon introduce legislation to legalize slot machines at four locations - most likely including sites in Baltimore and Western Maryland.
Rawlings' measure would take the form of a proposed change in the Maryland Constitution. As such, it would require a "supermajority" of 60 percent of both the House of Delegates and Senate to win passage.
Constitutional amendments do not require the governor's approval, meaning Glendening could not reject the measure. Should the bill clear the Assembly - which is by no means certain - the measure would require the approval of voters in next year's election.
The battle over slots has played out in Maryland for a decade, with millions of dollars spent by horse track owners and out-of-state casino companies, but no victories achieved in the legislature.
Even so, other circumstances continue to give slots proponents ammunition for their argument.
Most importantly, two neighboring states, Delaware and West Virginia, have legalized slot machines at their racetracks in the past decade.
That has led to healthy revenue for the states and healthy profits for the tracks.
Internet wagering has also taken off, despite questions about its legality, and buses continue to take thousands of Marylanders each week to spend money at Atlantic City casinos.
Under Rawlings' proposal, half the proceeds from slot machines would go to public education.
With the national economy showing signs of slowing, the Baltimore Democrat believes that some lawmakers who have been reluctant to vote for gambling in the past will take a second look.
Rawlings says he would like to see the issue taken up in Annapolis this year, not next, when lawmakers will face re-election campaigns.
"It would be best to do it now, when people are not confronted with the prospects of re-election," Rawlings said. "Next year, people will beat you up about it."
Taylor, who has long advocated bringing slot machines to the state, in large part to boost tourism in his home area of Western Maryland, backs Rawlings' proposal.
"I think a constitutional amendment is easy to support because what we're saying is, 'I'm not making this decision, the people will,'" Taylor said.
On the Senate side, Miller announced early in the legislative session that he was taking the unusual step of creating a special committee to examine gambling issues, including the question of bringing slots to Maryland.
Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, said the legislature lacks the "political will" to raise taxes, should the economy plunge sharply. That leaves slot machines as a viable option to generate state revenue, he said.
"This is not something I'm advocating," Miller said. "But I anticipate it. I see it on the horizon."
Miller's action has sent a signal that the gambling issue is once again on the table in Annapolis. Some lobbyists are predicting that this will spur casino companies to hire advocates to patrol the State House.
"I've got to believe that once this committee is appointed, it will be, 'Who let the dogs out?'" one lobbyist observed last week.
One important wild card in the slots debate is Townsend, who has not formally declared her candidacy for governor but is actively raising money and campaigning. She said last week that she remains opposed to slots and other forms of casino gambling.
"The economic benefits are uncertain, while there will be damaging social costs," she said in an interview. "This has been my position, and I see no need to change it."
However, Townsend twice sidestepped a question about whether she would reconsider slots.
Racing interests, who stand to benefit enormously from the legalization of slot machine gambling, have pumped tens of thousands of dollars into Townsend's campaign.
Joseph A. De Francis, the majority owner of Maryland's two largest thoroughbred tracks, says he has never pressed Townsend on the issue.
He said, however, that Annapolis lawmakers can't help but notice the impact slots are having in surrounding states.
"The Delaware slots and the West Virginia slots continue to churn out enormous sums of money for both states," De Francis said. "And I would imagine people are taking notice of that."
The public appears to be slowly accepting such arguments.
A statewide poll for The Sun released last month found that Marylanders narrowly favor legalizing slot machines at horse tracks 45 percent to 39 percent.
Those numbers represent a significant change of opinion. Only 2 1/2 years ago, a poll found Marylanders opposed slots, 48 percent to 39 percent.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and opponent of increased gambling, said the trend is clear.
"There is no doubt that the drift is toward legalized casino gambling in Maryland," Flanagan said. "There are strong undercurrents at work that are pushing us in that direction."