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Miller Urges Extending Session Over Slots Bill

Ehrlich Aides Hopeful of Settlement

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page B01

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said yesterday that efforts to legalize slot machine gambling in the state have stalled and that it may take an extraordinary step by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to jump-start the endeavor.

With leaders in the House of Delegates unwilling to negotiate further changes in a slots bill they approved last week and the Senate unwilling to accept the House's scaled-down proposal, Miller recommended that the governor hold the legislature in Annapolis "for as long as it takes" until the two chambers reach an agreement.

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The governor "should tell the legislators: 'You haven't done your jobs. Stay there till you do it right,' " said Miller (D-Calvert). "If I were the governor, I would keep the legislature here all year long if necessary."

Aides to Ehrlich (R) did not expressly rule out that possibility. But they said yesterday they remain hopeful the House and Senate, which each passed a version of the governor's slots initiative, can broker a compromise over the session's remaining six weeks.

"The governor can't force the members of the House and Senate to get along, but he can still lead the charge in making the case for why they should listen to the people of Maryland and pass this legislation," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director.

Last week's narrow passage of a slots bill in the House briefly appeared to clear the path for the governor's signature initiative to finally become law, after two years of failed efforts.

Ehrlich initially called the House vote "monumental." But yesterday both his aides and the Senate president, an ardent advocate for slots, confirmed what many gambling supporters suspected: The two chambers remain so far apart that passage of a slots bill looks unlikely.

The House and Senate versions of the slots legislation take entirely different approaches to introducing this form of gambling in Maryland. The House bill would allow 9,500 video lottery terminals at four locations -- in Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Frederick and Harford counties. The Senate bill would allow 15,500 slot machines at seven sites, including four horse tracks, that would be selected by a commission appointed by the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker.

Miller and Schurick said yesterday that they find elements of the House bill unworkable. Among them is a proposal that would limit those who are granted a license to operate a slots parlor to taking 30 percent of profits, compared with 36 percent in the Senate version. The House bill's cut, they said, would be too low to entice vendors to bid for a slots license.

Miller also said the locations identified for slots in the House bill are "unworkable" because county officials in Harford and Frederick could use local zoning laws to block slots parlors from opening.

"Passing this bill is going to take a very delicate balancing act," Miller said. "Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all found ways to do this, so there's no reason we shouldn't be able to as well."

For that to happen, though, there would have to be some effort to forge a compromise bill, he said. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has refused to budge from the House approach, saying the bill is the product of two years of negotiation and compromise.

Yesterday he repeated the assessment he made last week, after the bill passed with 71 votes, the bare minimum needed for a majority in the 141-member body.

"If you change this bill at all, it won't have the votes it needs to pass," he said. "It's that simple."

Busch scoffed at the notion of convening a special session on gambling immediately after the 90-day session ends in April.

"Why on earth would we do that?" Busch said.

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