Miller brings slots back to the table

The Baltimore Sun

In a move that could stir up a quiet legislative session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller plans to meet today with Gov. Martin O'Malley and key legislators and is expected to push for action this year on new revenues - including slot machine gambling - to fix Maryland's long-term budget shortfalls.

Sources familiar with Miller's plans say the meeting was set up to deal with general fiscal issues, including the budget proposal being debated in Annapolis, which does not call for slots or new taxes.

But those sources say he will introduce a slot machine gambling bill, putting considerable weight behind an issue that has all but disappeared from Annapolis this year. He also has spoken recently about moving forward with a gas tax increase and possibly other revenue-raisers.

Last night, Miller confirmed that he has introduced two bills dealing with slots and taxes, though he did not discuss the specifics.

"The Senate is going to look at everything," Miller said. "We need to move forward sooner rather than later."

But, he added, the Senate will only move forward in conjunction with O'Malley. "We're not going to act on our own," he said.

O'Malley, who has voiced support for a limited slots program to help save the horse racing industry, wants to put off until next year the likely divisive debate over how to address the state's $1.3 billion "structural deficit." The governor would prefer to try to reduce the shortfall first through government efficiencies. He has said he needs time to educate the public about the scope of the problem and build consensus around a solution.

"We're not interested in replaying the mistakes of the past few years. We'll make progress by first building consensus," Steve Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman, said last night.

O'Malley, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said at the beginning of this year's General Assembly session that they would wait until next year to have those discussions. But that hasn't stopped talk of revenue measures this year.

Bills to raise the sales tax received hearings in the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday, and lawmakers have introduced proposals to broaden the sales tax to cover more services and to raise the gas tax.

Busch has endorsed a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax to fund health care and a "green fee" on development to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Sources who have discussed the matter with Miller say he was annoyed that Busch endorsed the tobacco tax without warning him first. Miller has consistently pushed for action on revenues this year, saying he wants a special session of the legislature in the summer or fall.

Bringing slots back to the forefront could reignite one of the fiercest disputes of the past four years and test O'Malley's ability to maintain the good will that has prevailed in Annapolis since he took office last month.

The new governor has maintained good relations with Democrats and Republicans, but after four years of fighting about slot machine gambling during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term - a conflict that turned into a standoff between the pro-slots Senate and the anti-slots House - passions on the issue still run high.

"So much for a 'comprehensive solution' to Maryland's fiscal challenges," said Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who fought against slots as a member of the House of Delegates. "A promising debate on our state's fiscal future will now be shortchanged by this divisive and counterproductive debate over slots. It's a shame."

Slots proponents say talk of the structural deficit has revived their constituents' interest in the issue because they realize the alternative to expanded gambling is a major tax increase.

"Number one on a lot of people's minds are tax increases," said Del. Eric M. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who has sponsored slots bills in the past. "They hear there's a structural deficit, and they want to know where the money is going to come from."

Ehrlich and Miller teamed up to push slots bills, but no major gambling proposal has come out of the Senate this year. Two bills by Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, would allow limited slots programs on riverboats or by civic organizations.

Del. Galen R. Clagett, a Frederick County Democrat, introduced a full-fledged slots bill in the House and has been granted a committee hearing, something slots bills haven't always received in that chamber. He said he sees Miller's entry into the debate as a major boost for slots.

"I've been to see the governor and the speaker on it, and nobody is jumping on board, but they're all saying they're open to new revenues," Clagett said. "Everybody is saying they want to wait until next year, but you know, I see there are bills appearing that have revenue sources these days, so I'm not so sure how strong the commitment to take care of the numbers next year really is."

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