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In Slot Machine Debate, Once More, With Less Feeling

The state's finances have improved immensely since Ehrlich proposed slots as a way to help the state's important horse industry and pay for the escalating demands of education. Maryland's booming economy has supplied such a surplus that Democrats are charging that Ehrlich is spending too much. The fiscal pressure, for now, is gone.

And legislators found out that although Marylanders like slots, they don't particularly like slots close by. To get a bill through by one vote last year, the House had to agree to put slots in only four counties; the Senate wanted them across the state.

The biggest obstacle for slots, though, is House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who is only in his first term in leading the House but who quickly showed the power of his position. He didn't even allow slots to come to the House floor the first two years. Then, knowing that some of his members needed to vote on the issue to appease voters back home, he and the committee produced a bill that he knew would be unacceptable to Miller and Ehrlich.

Busch refused to try to find a compromise -- Miller said he had never seen the leader of the other body take such a position -- and the standoff has created a lasting animosity between the two top Democrats.

There was an irony in yesterday's hearing. Sitting in the back of the room was former House speaker Casper Taylor, the man Busch succeeded. When Ehrlich won his breakthrough election in 2002, he brought a number of new Republican lawmakers with him, including one from western Maryland who narrowly defeated Taylor.

Taylor is a staunch supporter of slots. With the governor, House speaker and Senate president all in agreement, slots probably would be whirling in the state's racetracks by now. Instead, Taylor sits with the other lobbyists and, asked about the future of the issue, says, "I really don't know."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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