Lawmakers plan strategy for final weeks of session

March 06, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Halftime's over - and now the real game begins.

With a little more than five weeks left in this year's legislative session, members of the Maryland General Assembly expect that after a lull in the partisan sniping that defined the session's January opening, old differences will resurface as the lawmakers tackle major issues such as the state budget and whether to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland.

Although both the House of Delegates and the Senate have passed bills to legalize slots, the bills are vastly different.

While the Senate bill allows for a commission to settle on up to seven locations for slot machines - four of which would be connected with racetracks - the House bill specifies only four locations, including Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort near Cumberland and an unspecified location in Frederick County, with only one tied to a racetrack - Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.


The Senate bill would allow up to 15,500 total machines in the combined seven locations, and the House bill would authorize only 9,500.

Such differences usually are resolved in a conference committee made up of members from each body, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch's take-it-or-leave-it stance on the House bill already may have drawn battle lines for the remainder of the session, scheduled to end April 11.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller hasn't taken kindly to Busch's position, and even has suggested to Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the state's most enthusiastic cheerleader for slots, that he keep legislators in Annapolis until they reach a compromise.

But Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, said this week that he already has had enough.

"I am not gonna spend another moment's energy on that subject," Weldon said. Because of the impasse between Busch and Miller, Weldon predicts there might be "no meaningful, measurable outcome."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, took a more optimistic view.

"It's refreshing in a way that slots has already moved through each chamber," said Shank, a slots proponent. "But there are ominous clouds on the horizon" because of what he called "the inflexibility of the leadership."

While suggesting the two sides "could just be marking territory" for now, Shank said he hoped they would remember that there should be compromise, and that "the will of the people is to get this thing moving."

"I hope they can sit down together and work something out," said John P. Donoghue, D-Washington. "I don't think it does anybody any good to have gridlock. I think everybody down here feels that way."

Show me the money

The state desperately needs a new revenue source, said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, and he sees slots as that source.

The state budget for fiscal year 2006 already is "bare bones," Munson said. Yet another $145 million needs to be trimmed from the budget to balance it.

That could mean a loss of both people and services, Munson said.

The Department of Natural Resources, for example, has lost 240 positions during the past five years, Munson said. Another 40 would be cut in next year's budget.

Without additional revenue, he said, state agencies won't be able to function. He hopes for a compromise on slots, but "the House bill is not the compromise," he said.

This is the first year the House has ever approved a bill to legalize slots. Last year, the Senate approved a bill, but it died in a House committee.

But passage in the House this year "was pure politics - don't let anybody be fooled," said Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, a slots foe. Myers said he believed Busch, viewed for the past two years as the main obstacle to slots, allowed the bill to pass "because I believe the debate had to get away from the speaker to the whole General Assembly."

Myers had predicted shortly before the session started that Busch would allow a bill through. The real work now, he said, will be on the part of a conference committee - if there is one.

Any bill that survived there, he said, "will probably be one of the toughest votes my colleagues will take."

The fact that slots votes occurred in the first half of the session, he added, made the early weeks more stressful.

"It almost feels as if we're in the last two weeks instead of just past the midpoint," Myers said. "It was like we just jumped on a moving train."

Moving right along ...

The resulting politicking has put other business behind schedule, said Sen. John Hafer, R-Washington/Allegany/Garrett, with "people dragging their feet and trying to embarrass each other."

Though Shank has done plenty of lobbying for slots himself, he said this week that he has been "frustrated with all the attention and gnashing of teeth over slots to the detriment of fixing the malpractice issue."

In fact, one source of all of the political ire was the medical malpractice liability legislation that resulted from a special session conducted just after Christmas.

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