- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday rejected House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s plan for a referendum on permitting slot machines, and instead called for a special session on the issue.

“I have concluded that the plan suffers from significant and fundamental flaws,” Mr. Ehrlich said in a letter to Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

“Your proposal presents a profound departure from what has emerged from this process and from what is generally agreed upon — a radically different alignment of venues, governance, development, revenue distributions and management,” Mr. Ehrlich wrote.

The Republican governor’s action comes as a new statewide poll indicates most Marylanders support setting up slots at racetracks around the state and also support holding a referendum on the issue.

About 55 percent of respondents said they favor allowing slots, and 89 percent said they would like a referendum on slots, according to a poll released today by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. The telephone poll of 847 registered voters was conducted from Aug. 10 to Aug. 15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The survey also shows a majority of voters, 63 percent, oppose slots within five miles of their homes.

The governor has asked Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. to convene the special session early next month, said Henry P. Fawell, an Ehrlich administration spokesman.

Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s Democrat, has supported the governor’s slots initiative.

Asked whether the majority of part-time lawmakers in the General Assembly wanted to return to Annapolis during summer recess to resolve the issue, Mr. Fawell said, “there are a number of Republicans and Democrats that want to take a vote on the governor’s bill and move on.”

He also said the administration has enough votes in the House, “if the speaker will allow a vote.”

Mr. Busch has helped defeat Mr. Ehrlich’s initiative in the House for two consecutive years.

Mr. Ehrlich thanked Mr. Busch in the letter for working all summer on a compromise but said the plan did not allow time for it to be considered by state lawmakers, local leaders, experts and the public.

“Ignoring … their input with a plan … seen by only a handful of people until 10 days ago is simply not responsible and, consequently, something I cannot accept,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “The legislation passed by the Senate is an excellent plan that has the support of the majority of the General Assembly.”

Just hours later, Mr. Busch sent a terse response that included the statement: “Instead of coming back to tell us what [Mr. Ehrlich] does and doesn’t like in our bill, he seems to have just thrown the whole idea of letting the people decide out the window. I think people are having a hard time understanding why the governor won’t consider a referendum.

“You say you want slots,” the letter continues, “you say you were elected on a mandate to legalize slots, when you’re presented with a proposal to let the people decide, [then] you don’t come to the negotiating table.”

Mr. Ehrlich has said a referendum is not a “preferred option” and that he will not place slots at Timonium Racecourse in Baltimore County, one of the sites listed in the speaker’s plan.

Mr. Miller has 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.

Mr. Busch had proposed amending the state constitution to permit slot machines and called for setting up gambling halls across the state at mostly government-owned sites.

Under his plan, as many as 13,000 slot machines would be placed in the Frederick area, at Timonium, 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.

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

Maryland gamblers spend $309 million a year in casinos in Delaware and West Virginia. The state also faces new competition from Pennsylvania, which will soon add 61,000 slots. Investors recently failed in their efforts to bring slots to the District but have filed an appeal.

The Maryland state constitution gives the governor authority to convene a special session under “extraordinary occasions.”

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