Anxious lobbyists and a newly energized governor are trying to pressure legislative leaders to end their stalemate over slot machine gambling before the curtain drops on the Maryland General Assembly's session.
After weeks of silence on the contentious issue, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) this week renewed his calls for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to entertain talks on a compromise proposal that would legalize slot machines at selected venues.
"I'm going to ask the speaker again, respectfully, to sit down. I think he would. I hope he would," Ehrlich told reporters this week during a visit to Laurel Park racetrack, a potential slots venue.
In Annapolis, lobbyists representing gambling and horse-racing interests have quietly begun pressing Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) to drop his insistence on a broader slots plan and instead accept the version that Busch passed through the House by the thinnest of margins.
"The possibility of slots passing is absolutely still there if these two men can come together," said Paul E. Weisengoff, an Annapolis lobbyist with long ties to the horse-racing industry who is working for Ehrlich. "That's a tall order, but there's loads of time to make it happen."
Today, several key lawmakers will get a reminder of what might be at stake if a slots bill fails as they tour the storied Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore as guests of lobbyists for Magna Entertainment, the multinational horse-racing conglomerate that hopes to profit from slots at the tracks it owns in Maryland: Pimlico and Laurel.
"We're really hoping something gets done soon, before it's too late" for the Maryland horse-racing industry, said Joseph A. De Francis, a minority owner of the two tracks.
The fresh push, with 10 days left in the legislature's 90-day session, comes as nearby states are considering steps to blunt the impact of a possible Maryland gambling initiative. Delaware lawmakers are floating gambling expansion plans, including the legalization of sports betting. And the West Virginia Senate this week approved casino-style table gambling at the state's four racetracks.
The bill's sponsor, West Virginia Sen. Andy McKenzie (R), said "concern about competition" helped him get the bill through the Senate. He expects it will pass the House next week, clearing the way for his state to take in an added $42 million a year in gambling proceeds. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is setting up the infrastructure for a slots plan approved last summer.
Miller said every day that goes by without a Maryland slots bill is a lost opportunity to profit from gamblers who are instead going across state lines. "We could be cutting property taxes and funding schools," Miller said. "Instead, we're cutting Meals on Wheels."
At the same time, Miller has contributed to the standoff over competing proposals to legalize the machines and bring anywhere from $330 million to more than $900 million in fresh annual revenue into the Maryland treasury.
The two chambers each have approved a slots proposal, but the plans are significantly different. The House's plan would place 9,500 machines at sites in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties. The Senate bill would permit 15,500 machines at seven locations, four of which would be horse tracks. Those sites would be selected by a nine-member commission, a majority of whom would be appointed by Ehrlich.
Busch said his chamber's bill passed with a majority that is so fragile that it would crumble if the legislation is amended. Accordingly, he declined to appoint a conference committee to negotiate a compromise with senators, and he sent his bill to the other side of the State House. The Senate promptly amended the House bill to look just like the Senate version and sent it back to Busch.
"I expect I'll be bombarded by everyone next week," Busch said, anticipating a horde of lobbyists. But he said he will not relent. The best he will offer, he said, is to return the House bill to the Senate and give senators another shot at passing it before the session ends.
Miller did not see hope for that approach. "All the bills are in the House," he said. "If anything happens, it happens there."
Opponents to slots are banking on the conflict to keep the bill locked up for the session's remaining days. But one leading slots foe, Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), said he knows that will not be easy when faced with an all-out campaign from pro-slots lobbyists.
"They're at red alert, DefCon 1," Franchot said. "They know this is their window."
On this point, slots supporters appear to agree.
"Everybody has had their cooling-off period," said Del. Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore), a vigorous advocate for a gambling expansion. "Hopefully, in the waning days, someone will step forward and consider a compromise. This is a town built on give-and-take. It's time for someone to give."