- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Maryland Democratic supporters and opponents of slots say House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s call for a special session and referendum aims to kill debate on the issue and block the establishment of gambling halls in the state.

In addition, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday said several pro-slots lawmakers have told him they won’t support a referendum to amend the state constitution on the issue. “That’s obviously a death knell … if pro-slots legislators are not going to go along,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican.

“I view the current proposal from [Mr. Busch] as a defensive statement rather than an affirmative statement that we should have slots,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Democrat and a slots opponent. “I don’t think it will result in an agreement. And if there is no agreement, then there will be no special session.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, said Mr. Busch’s plan would be unpopular among voters because it would place slot machines in “conservative, rural areas” instead of Southern Maryland and Baltimore, where people already gamble and are likely to accept slots.

“I know it is not acceptable,” Mr. Miller, a slots supporter, said of the proposal offered by the House speaker on Friday.

Busch spokeswoman Nancy C. Lineman said the speaker has “clearly articulated his willingness to negotiate the details of a referendum.”

“The speaker could not be more clear about his willingness to negotiate locations and details in the proposal,” she said.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, has been instrumental in killing Mr. Ehrlich’s slots proposal in the House for the past two years, seeking instead to raise $670 million in sales- and income-tax increases to help horse racing and public education.

But last week, Mr. Busch called for amending the state constitution to permit slot machines and proposed setting up gambling halls across the state.

Under his plan, as many as 13,000 slot machines would be placed in the Frederick area, at Timonium Racecourse in Baltimore County, at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County, and at three state-owned sites — one along Interstate 70 in Frederick County, one along Interstate 95 near Aberdeen in Harford County and one along Route 50 on the Eastern Shore.

Amending the constitution first would require three-fifths majority approval by the General Assembly, then majority approval by voters in a referendum — a measure that Mr. Ehrlich has said is not his “preferred option.”

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat and slots opponent, said Mr. Busch is likely seeking to end debate on slots with his proposal.

“A vote terminates the issue for the rest of the term,” said Mr. Barve, who supports a referendum, “because when the voters speak, everyone will respect that.”

Delegate Clarence Davis, Baltimore Democrat and a slots supporter, said a referendum is unnecessary.

“I think it is something that legislators are elected to do,” said Mr. Davis, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, where Mr. Ehrlich’s bill has been killed for the past two years. “I think the majority of Marylanders have indicated that they favor slots.”

A statewide poll of registered voters conducted by Gonzales Marketing and Research Strategies in March showed that 54 percent of Marylanders favor legalizing slot machines. The poll also found that 79 percent of state residents would support a referendum on the issue.

Mr. Busch asked Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to decide on his plan by Sunday, then call the legislature into special session. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly must meet and approve the amendment by Sept. 8 for the issue to get on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the governor has not made a decision on the bill.

“The governor is in the process of reviewing the bill,” she said. “There is some room for improvement, but obviously this bill provides a strong foundation for negotiations to begin.”

Mr. Ehrlich has sought to set up as many as 15,500 slot machines at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County and a proposed track in Allegany County, as well as two sites along I-95.

All of the governor’s suggested sites would be privately owned; all of Mr. Busch’s suggested sites except Laurel Park are state-owned. Mr. Ehrlich has estimated that his plan would revive horse racing in Maryland and provide up to $800 million in revenue for education.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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