Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) launched a final push last night to revive his slot machine gambling initiative before time runs out on the 90-day General Assembly session.
In his first genuine attempt at negotiation since work on the bill stalled in February, the governor met separately yesterday with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to discuss the fate of the gambling initiative.
Differing slots plans have passed in both the House and Senate, but the governor's drive to legalize the machines lost momentum when Busch declined to negotiate a compromise plan with the Senate.
Ehrlich brushed past reporters yesterday after leaving Busch's office, saying he would not discuss the nature of the talks. Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, told reporters that there are "only seven or eight meaningful differences" to be hashed out between the House's and the governor's versions of slots legislation before the legislature adjourns Monday.
"The governor is willing to go a long way," Schurick said. "There's a natural and obvious compromise . . . and the governor would willingly make that compromise."
Busch described the 20-minute chat with Ehrlich as cordial but said he did not expect it to lead anywhere. The two leaders never discussed the fine points of the bill, and the speaker said he did little more than reiterate his reasons for not negotiating further.
"As far as I'm concerned, tomorrow morning [slots] won't even be on the horizon," Busch said.
The differences between the Senate and House bills are not insignificant. The Senate authorized up to 15,500 machines at four racetracks and three off-track sites, with the locations to be chosen by a commission.
The House approved a maximum of 9,500 machines at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland and sites in Anne Arundel, Harford and Frederick counties.
Both bills are before the House Ways and Means Committee, and Miller made a rare appearance before the panel, urging delegates to take "a little baby step forward."
"There's no such thing as a perfect bill," Miller said. "The essence of a deal is when both sides can declare victory."
Testifying jointly with Ehrlich's budget director, Chip DiPaula Jr., Miller said that he was open to compromise and said repeatedly that slots revenue was essential "for the sake of the schoolchildren."
"We're totally surrounded" by states that have legalized slot machines or are doing so, Miller said. "We were ahead of the curve when we started on this road, and now we're behind it."
Committee members seemed skeptical of Miller's pledge to compromise and suggested that in approving slots legislation this year, the House already had compromised as much as it could.