Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), who is against slots, likened the battle over gambling to a football game. "Right now we're in the third quarter," he said. "We just have to keep our energy up."
Already there are signs that slots advocates are altering their tactics from prior years, when the issue felt fresher. Instead of championing slot machine revenue as an antidote for the ailing horse racing industry, both Miller and Ehrlich have expressed an interest in spending slots money on school construction -- a popular approach in many fast-growing suburban communities.
Gov. Ehrlich worries "none of the dynamics have changed."
Miller said opinion polls have shown that support for slots increases significantly when proceeds are earmarked for education or school construction. Supporters estimate that slots could generate as much as $700 million a year for the state treasury.
A report released last year by a state task force concluded that "Maryland faces a crisis in public school construction" and would need to allocate at least $250 million annually for the next eight years to meet its facility needs.
As of last year, the state anticipated spending only about $100 million a year through 2009.
Ehrlich has been slow to formalize his support for such a plan, saying he was not sure it was worth engaging in a battle over gambling for the third straight year "if none of the dynamics have changed."
But Chip DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's budget secretary, said Friday that the governor is preparing to "encourage the legislature" to pass a slots initiative that helps fund school construction.
Ehrlich has identified classroom construction as a priority this year, DiPaula said, adding that the governor will boost spending on such projects regardless of what happens in the slots debate. He said the administration is looking at other options, such as a proposal to curtail Maryland's prevailing wage standards for contractors, which add to the cost of school projects.
But to meet the long-term school system needs, DiPaula said, "we will need a substantial new funding source like the video lottery program," the administration's name for slot machine gambling.
Still, even the governor has had to brace himself before reentering the fray, said Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's director of communications.
"Every time he's asked about it, he says, 'I'm tired of talking about it,' " Schurick said. "The same cast of characters is still in the same place. Nothing changes. And the governor just doesn't feel like wasting more time."
Some Democratic leaders in the House believe that, in at least one respect, the governor is correct: Most delegates have not changed their minds about expanding legalized gambling.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) said he believes that a consensus remains against the idea. "I think there's an understanding that there simply are not the votes to pass it in the House chamber," Barve said.
But sheer frustration could provide a push to get the measure out of committee and onto the floor for a vote, Busch said.
"Whether they want to pass it or not, they want it dealt with," Busch said of the House membership. "They don't want it to continue to dominate, while all the other important issues we have to deal with take a back seat."
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.