- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Senior House of Delegates leaders support the idea of a referendum on slot machines, but negotiations on a solution to the long dispute over expanded gambling are still in the preliminary stages, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday.

Mr. Busch said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have asked him to talk to top House leaders to see what they think about a slot machine referendum.

“They seem to be supportive of the idea,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.

The next step will be to poll the remaining 98 House Democrats to see what they think about a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide in November whether slot machines should be legalized, Mr. Busch said.

“My discussion with [Mr. Miller] and the governor was that they are very interested in a referendum issue, but they certainly want to know: Will the House be in support of it?” Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Miller, Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat, said he has no deadline for gauging House Democratic support or developing the details of an amendment. However, the measure would have to be approved by the General Assembly by September to make the ballot in November.

Mr. Ehrlich, whose slot machine bill has been defeated two consecutive years in the House, said yesterday he still would prefer a bill to a constitutional amendment as the way to deal with slot machines.

But the governor would not rule out a referendum if an agreement can be reached on details such as how many slots would be allowed, where they would be located, who would own them and how the profits would be shared.

Mr. Miller also favors a bill over an amendment, but has been negotiating with Mr. Busch about a referendum as a way to break the deadlock over slot machine gambling.

Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Miller, strong supporters of slot machines, sounded optimistic yesterday that something would develop from the new round of talks among the three leaders.

Mr. Miller, who has been trying to broker an agreement between Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Busch, said the relationship between the two men is “at an all-time high.”

Mr. Ehrlich is a frequent critic of Mr. Busch but said he has been “quite open and forthright” in recent discussions on slots with him and Mr. Miller.

“We just decided to have almost daily conversations” to see if an agreement can be reached, the governor said.

Mr. Busch remains personally opposed to slot machines, but said polls show about 80 percent of Marylanders think voters should make the decision.

If the issue is to be on the November ballot, the legislature would have to be called into special session to propose an amendment to the constitution.

That would require a three-fifths vote — 85 votes in the House and 29 in the Senate — instead of a simple majority of 71 House members and 24 Senate members for a regular bill.

Mr. Busch said the amendment will not pass the House without support from many of the 43 House Republicans.

Mr. Busch, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Miller met Monday to talk about slot machines, and Mr. Busch said he would call the governor to tell him what senior House leaders said about the referendum at the meeting yesterday.

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