- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last night said a bipartisan compromise to implement his plan to legalize slot-machine gambling collapsed after the top House Democrat switched his own gambling bill for the governor’s.

“[The compromise] would never work with a bill that was a non-starter in the first place,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said at a press conference hastily convened last night at the governor’s mansion.

“Where we’re at right now is: I think we are dead in the water,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat and strong slots supporter.

Mr. Ehrlich and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, had agreed Monday night to pursue a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide the governor’s slots plan as a referendum question on the Nov. 2 ballot.

However, Mr. Ehrlich said the gambling plan on which they agreed was not the one proposed to the Democratic caucus by Mr. Busch, who has been the chief obstacle to passage of the governor’s slots plan for two years.

A high-ranking administration official said Mr. Busch turned the compromise into a “shell game.” Mr. Ehrlich said a deal to advance the slots plan before the next legislative session was unlikely. He said that now only “a miracle” could revive the slots plan.

The governor previously opposed a constitutional amendment, saying it was “bad policy” to make gambling a constitutional issue. The amendment also would have required a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature — much more difficult to win than the simple majority to make law — to put the question to voters.

Mr. Ehrlich warmed to the referendum after Mr. Busch abandoned his demand that a slots bill be tied to tax increases or that his slots bill replace the governor’s.

Mr. Busch and Mr. Miller approached the governor Friday seeking to broker a deal. The three leaders met Monday night and agreed to the details of a compromise to work for a slots plan similar to that passed by the Senate at the 2004 General Assembly session.

Yesterday, both sides were gauging support in their caucuses to determine whether the constitutional amendment would pass in a special-session vote, which had to be conducted by Sept. 20 to get the question on the ballot.

When Mr. Busch met with House Democrats, however, he told them the referendum question would be on his alternative slots bill.

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