Maryland lawmakers won't gamble on slots bill

September 10, 2004|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - For a minute there, it almost seemed the debate on legalizing slots in Maryland had moved off dead center.

A Labor Day meeting between Gov. Robert Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was said to have produced an agreement to take the issue to referendum. General Assembly members were alerted Tuesday that after party caucuses to consider the measure on Wednesday, they should be prepared for a special session to vote on a bill next week.

"We caucused and we counted votes and we agreed to take it to a referendum," said Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington. "By the time I got home, I saw the governor on the news and he was saying 'no.'"


So what was the dealbreaker?

"You got me," Donoghue said.

The sticky wicket, some lawmakers said, was the question of which bill on which to base the referendum: the governor's bill that passed the Senate in the last General Assembly session, or the bill Busch later proposed - a bill Delegate Chris Shank, R-Washington, contends is deliberately crafted for failure.

During a recent visit to Hagerstown, Ehrlich was even more blunt about Busch's slots bill.

"It's a transparent gambit as phony as it comes," Ehrlich said.

Particularly agitating to local officials is a provision in the 61-page bill that would take control of charitable gaming - tip jars - away from the county Gaming Commission and give it to the Comptroller's Office.

Last month, Washington County Gaming Office Director Daniel DiVito wrote the governor denouncing the Busch bill.

"Speaker Busch's proposal to shift the authority to regulate local gaming to the state level only creates another bureaucracy to perform duties that are best addressed at the local level," he wrote.

"I would therefore respectfully encourage you to continue your opposition to this provision," DiVito continued.

Another issue of contention in Busch's bill, according to Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, was that Ehrlich's slots bill originally was intended "to shore up the horse racing industry in Maryland," but Busch's bill "cut the horse racing industry out of it completely."

Kelly said the bill contained "nothing but poison pills" and that even "ardent proponents of slots" - such as himself - "would vote against it."

That Ehrlich had agreed to putting the issue to referendum was a concession on his part - he wanted the Legislature to act on the issue.

Square one

Donoghue said he believes lawmakers should "let the voters say yes or no on this issue."

"I firmly believe this is a major policy decision and voters should have a say."

As for the provisions in the Busch bill causing local angst, Donoghue said, "my job as a member of leadership in the majority party is to protect Washington County these details can be hammered out; nothing's etched in stone."

Although he said "the House stands ready to work with the governor and the speaker" on the issue, he conceded the issue appeared to be dead for this year.

"There's a new rule - to get it on the ballot you have to have the issues worked out 55 days before the election," he said.

Shank said the Republicans were ready to back a referendum - on the governor's bill.

"What I am told happened was that the speaker misled the governor and Mike Miller we were gonna use the governor's bill." A referendum on that bill, Shank said, "had extremely high support" among House Republicans. "Either the speaker's not dealing in good faith, or he doesn't have control of his caucus."

Kelly's assessment was a little more succinct.

"Yesterday was a farce," he said. Busch was lining up votes "for a concept" rather than a bill, he said.

"There is no way forward," he concluded.

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