Utter the word "slots" in front of a state lawmaker in Annapolis these days and just wait for the reaction: One delegate scrunches his face into a scowl, a senator rolls her eyes, another exhales with a deep, impatient sigh.
When House Speaker Michael E. Busch is confronted with a question about legalizing slot machines -- as he was last week on the opening day of the General Assembly's 2005 session -- his shoulders slump, and he groans in a way that suggests it is almost painful to summon a response.
Gov. Ehrlich worries "none of the dynamics have changed."
"There's a certain fatigue that's set in with this issue," said Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has led repeated efforts to defeat gambling legislation over the past two years. "I think the membership is trying almost to wish it away, hoping it won't hang over their heads for another whole session."
But slot machine gambling is a subject that is not going away. For the third straight year, the question of whether gambling should be embraced as a way to pay for critical Maryland services appears poised to dominate the legislature's time and attention.
The man who has championed this approach with relentless zeal, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., announced Wednesday that he will submit a slots bill again this year, whether or not it has the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Ehrlich (R) is an ardent slots supporter whose election in 2002 helped revive the issue after an eight-year hiatus, and his aides said Friday that he will either embrace Miller's effort, which involves plowing slot revenues into school construction, or launch one of his own.
In announcing his intentions last week, Miller (D-Calvert) repeated what he has said since 1997 about slots in Maryland: They are coming.
"I think there will be more momentum in the House this year because certain members now recognize the inevitability," Miller said. "I don't intend to wear down the opposition. The facts will wear down the opposition."
Exhaustion with the issue does provide Miller and Ehrlich with a key psychological advantage this year as they try to push a slots bill through an unfriendly House chamber, several lawmakers and lobbyists said.
Because the issue engages so many powerful interests, garners so much media attention and incites such frenetic lobbying, it is bound to wear down even the most seasoned legislator, said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who has served in the Senate for 38 years.
"There is a theory in Annapolis that if you come back enough times with a piece of legislation, sooner or later it will pass," Stone said. "The thinking is, at some point the opposition will just give in."
But opponents of slots said they are prepared for trench warfare again this year. Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said he and his colleagues believe the threat of slots passing is greater than ever this year.
"Fatigue makes cowards of us all," Franchot said. "We hear the proponents saying, 'Can't we get rid of this tiresome subject and just pass it?' We know that sentiment is out there, which is why we have to be so vigilant."
Vigilance on the part of slots foes has meant holding a tactics workshop in Annapolis just before the start of the 90-day session and scheduling an organizational meeting for the coming week.