Maryland House of Delegates leaders reached no agreement with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over slot machine gambling last night and said the chances for a special session on gambling this summer remain slim.
House leaders offered the governor wide latitude in designing a plan to legalize slot machines in the state and asked in exchange that Ehrlich (R) publicly support putting the matter before voters in November.
But a top Ehrlich aide responded by telling the House leaders what Ehrlich told reporters earlier in the day: He opposes putting slots on the ballot.
"Everyone knows my position," the governor said yesterday afternoon. "We should do it straight up."
Despite the fact that both Ehrlich and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) described their outlook on slots as "not optimistic," neither would slam the door on the possibility of a last-minute deal.
After the 2 1/2 hour meeting, attended by a half-dozen House leaders, Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery) said, "This process is not over."
And Budget Secretary Chip DiPaula Jr. emerged from his negotiating session with the group sounding unexpectedly upbeat. He said House leaders agreed to send the governor a detailed plan for slots. After that happens, he said, "then we can talk about the manner of implementation."
DiPaula said he promised Busch a quick response once the governor has reviewed the House proposal.
"My take is, they're interested in talking about a proposal. More interested than I've heard before," DiPaula said. "It seems healthy, but there's quite a ways to go."
Time is running out on the idea of passing legislation this summer, because the deadline for placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot is Sept. 8. That leaves limited time to bring the entire legislature to Annapolis.
Busch and other House leaders said they heard nothing from DiPaula that would lead them to believe they had made enough progress to count on a summertime vote.
"Quite candidly, I didn't get any sense they'd go to a referendum," Busch said. "The House has tried to reach a compromise and come to a middle ground that people would support. I don't know how much more they want from us."
Part of what motivated yesterday's meeting was a growing perception, being fueled by Ehrlich and other top Republicans during speeches and talk radio appearances, that Busch is standing directly in the path of a popular proposal.
This was a chance, House leaders agreed, to show they were serious about compromise and about working with the governor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland.
Among the most vocal advocates for this approach was Hurson, who said he believed there is also mounting pressure on the governor to prove that he can win approval of his signature initiatives -- of which this is surely one.
The House offer, he said, may ultimately include a return to an early concept for slots that placed the terminals only at the state's horseracing tracks.
"At this point," Hurson said after the meeting, "we have done all the compromising. If the governor doesn't take this, it's never going to go anywhere."
Last night's offer was not without substantial risk for Busch, who would need to muster a supermajority in both the House and Senate to get such a plan on the ballot. Failure to do so could leave him facing pressure to accept the approach favored by Ehrlich and Miller: legalizing slots simply through legislation.
That is why, House leaders said, Busch wants the governor to publicly support putting the matter before voters.
"We really wish the governor was prepared to take this position now," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery). "That's the only way."