- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers have persuaded House Speaker Michael E. Busch to allow a full House vote on the slot-machine legislation he helped defeat two straight years, House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said yesterday.

“There will be a vote,” he said. “There is a large number of delegates who want to vote on a [slots] bill on the House floor.”

Mr. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, said the push is coming from opponents and supporters of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s slots proposal.

However, House Minority Leader George C. Edwards credits pro-slots Democrats with changing Mr. Busch’s mind.

“Democrats who support slots are saying, ‘We better take a hard look at this and do something,’ ” said Mr. Edwards, Garrett Republican.

He also thinks a slots bill will reach the House floor but has concerns about Democratic leaders sinking it with amendments.

“There is still a feeling out there that [Democratic leaders] don’t want to give the governor anything because they don’t want the governor to look good,” Mr. Edwards said.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, killed the proposal both times in the House Ways and Means Committee, which will hold hearings next week on new slots bills.

The governor’s plan is almost identical to last year’s version and puts 15,500 slot machines at four horse tracks and two off-track sites to generate about $800 million a year to revive Maryland’s racing industry and help fund public schools. It has become the focal point of the struggle between the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

If a slots bill reaches the House floor, it will be a modified version of the governor’s proposal.

The House bill proposed by Delegate Galen R. Clagett, Frederick Democrat, puts slots at racetracks and earmarks 40 percent of the profits for public school construction.

Mr. Clagett said the final version will be a combination of every slots bills and thinks this will be the year the proposal goes to a vote.

“The trenches were deep and the lines were drawn [in past sessions], but people are willing to compromise this year,” he said.

Mr. Clagett also said Mr. Busch’s proposal to use the state’s rainy-day fund for school construction was intended to underscore the urgent need for school construction money, not to undermine the governor’s slots bill.

“What that basically said was if we put slots in tomorrow, we have two years before we see any revenue,” he said. “We won’t get this [slots] money tomorrow.”

Democrats have introduced several other slots bill.

Mr. Busch was not available to comment yesterday. His secretary directed questions about slots to Mr. Barve.

Mr. Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in more than three decades, campaigned heavily on his gambling initiative and has been criticized for his inability to deliver.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat, has been the governor’s chief ally on slots. The Senate passed the bill the past two years and is expected to pass it again this session.

Several lawmakers said yesterday that House Democrats might be ready to stop stonewalling slots because the strategy could hurt them in the 2006 elections, when the governor and all state lawmakers are up for re-election.

Still, the Ehrlich administration remains skeptical about slots passing in the House.

“We would like to believe that the third time is the charm, but … we wouldn’t take any bets,” said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.

She said Mr. Busch has not approached Mr. Ehrlich about advancing a slots bill, but the administration is “ready and willing” to begin negotiations.

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