The demise last night of legislation to legalize slot machines in Maryland marked a trifecta for jubilant gambling opponents, who for the third straight year overcame intensive lobbying by the governor and some of the state's most powerful interests.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) conceded defeat last night and declared the issue dead until after the 2006 elections. Ehrlich blamed the loss of his top initiative on a recalcitrant legislature and the Democrats who control it.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset), left, approaches Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. during the last day of Maryland's legislative session.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
"The choice was not mine," Ehrlich said last night. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) "has not operated in good faith. He has not changed his position one inch."
But slots opponents have a competing theory. They said last night that bickering among high-powered gambling interests made it impossible for the governor and lawmakers to craft a slots program that would satisfy everyone.
"Once again, the folks who wanted slots couldn't see through their own greed to reach an agreement," said Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore). "The wisdom of Solomon did not prevail on this one."
For the first time, the bill made it onto the floor of the House of Delegates, where a bare majority of 71 members passed legislation that would have legalized the machines.
At first blush, the vote was a major milestone for the governor, who in prior years had been unable to get the measure past a divided House committee. Ehrlich and his aides worked aggressively to find 35 Republican votes to help push it through the House, and when it passed Feb. 25, he called it a "a monumental day."
But the bill approved by the House had few of the elements the governor was seeking. It permitted 9,500 machines in just four counties; the Senate bill allowed 15,500 machines across the state.
To find the needed votes, Busch said he had to craft legislation that would ensure no slots would be allowed in Prince George's County or Baltimore.
Every proposal up to that point had targeted those jurisdictions for the majority of slots locations. The Senate plan appeared geared toward putting slots at Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track that Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos was poised to purchase, and at Pimlico, the Baltimore track partially owned by Joseph A. De Francis. Both men have donated heavily to Ehrlich and Miller.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said yesterday that he and other local lawmakers felt uncomfortable seeing slots in the county. "We said if the governor didn't want these in his own [Baltimore County] back yard, why should we want them in ours?" Johnson said. "The delegation stood firm on this. Like a rock."
When the bill passed the House, Busch said backing for the bill was so fragile that he didn't see how he could risk changing the bill.
Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) told reporters they were astounded. Usually, when the two chambers disagree on a bill, the members appoint a conference committee to broker a compromise. Miller said yesterday that, in his 40 years in Annapolis, he's never seen a presiding officer refuse to negotiate over a bill.
"He's used his power of the speakership to thwart the will of the governor and the will of a majority of his constituents," he said.
Miller said the bill was nothing more than a ruse -- "a bad bill . . . crafted by people opposed" to slots.
In a matter of days, senators voted to scrap the House bill, amending it to look like their version and virtually eliminating chances for a last-minute revival of the House bill. Delegates who have supported slots said they were dumbfounded.
"For three years they've been telling us to give them a bill, and when we finally do, they turn their backs on it," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery).
Hixson said she believes Miller rejected the House bill in a pique because it wasn't the bill he wanted. "I don't know that he's ever had anybody stand up to him like that before," she said.
Even Ehrlich was surprised by the maneuver, saying he believed any bill would have been better than none. "Mike Miller did not want to take up that option, and I accept that decision," Ehrlich said.
The governor noted that Miller has talked of a special session to broker a compromise and added, "I'll take just about anything now."
Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.