- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — The future of slot machine gambling in Maryland, if there is one, is as muddled as ever four weeks before the opening of the 2004 legislative session.

Proposals floating around state government circles call for slot machines at tracks, in off-track casinos, in bars, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

More than seven months have passed since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s slot machine bill died in a House committee, but nothing resembling a consensus has developed among legislative leaders and the Ehrlich administration.

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which killed Mr. Ehrlich’s bill, spent the last several months studying gambling issues and met Monday and Tuesday to prepare recommendations for the House.

It doesn’t appear that the committee will bring much clarity to the muddy gambling picture.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the committee won’t be drafting a bill for the session that begins Jan. 14. What he wants instead are answers to a key question: “If, in fact, you have an expansion of gambling, what is best for the citizens of Maryland?”

He expects the committee to provide recommendations and options on a broad range of issues, including: Who should own and control slot machines? Where should they be located? How much money should go to the state, and how much to private operators? How many machines should be permitted, and should local governments have a veto power over slots facilities?

None of the key players in the slot machine drama is willing to make a firm prediction on the eventual outcome.

Ehrlich administration aides put the chances at about 50-50. Mr. Busch, who was instrumental in defeating the bill last session, is noncommittal about its prospects. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat and a strong slots supporter, says: “It’s very difficult to say.”

Many Democratic lawmakers say it is up to Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to take the lead if he wants slot machine gambling. He made slots a key element in his 2002 campaign for governor, saying it was essential to pay for the state’s six-year plan to boost public school aid by $1.3 billion.

But the governor has said repeatedly since losing the bill last year that he will not waste political capital on slot machines if Mr. Busch plans to kill the bill again.

Greg Massoni, Mr. Ehrlich’s press secretary, said the governor expects to sit down with Mr. Miller and Mr. Busch during the next two weeks to talk about the 2004 session, but that “right now slots is not part of that agenda.”

He said the House is talking about gambling, and “we’re encouraged by some of the movement by the speaker.”

Mr. Busch says a lot of questions need to be answered before he can make a decision on expanded gambling.

The best thing slots proponents have going for them is the revenue the state would receive — as much as $700 million, the governor says.

Mr. Busch says that figure is inflated and revenues would be $500 million or less. Even if slot machines are approved next year, he said, it would be at least 18 months before the state would begin to see any significant revenue, which would not help solve current budget problems.

State Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said chances are good that slot machine legislation will be approved despite what he calls mixed messages from the administration and a lack of a consensus on what should be done.

“The only consensus is we need the revenue,” he said.

Delegate Jean Cryor, Montgomery County Republican, said if slot machine legislation passes it will be because three men — the governor, the speaker and the Senate president — sit down and work out a deal.

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