O'Malley Open to A Public Slots Vote

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley has started exploring the possibility of a public vote on the legalization of slot-machine gambling as a way to build support for the most divisive proposal in his package to close a $1.7 billion budget shortfall in Maryland.

"I am open to any and all ideas that will get us to consensus," O'Malley (D) said in a brief interview yesterday when asked about a referendum, an idea that has been floated in closed-door meetings this week between the governor and legislators.

Aides to O'Malley and lawmakers said it was unclear whether the governor would ultimately embrace a public vote rather than let the General Assembly settle the issue directly, and late yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) blasted a referendum as "ludicrous."

The ongoing talks, however, underscore the great lengths to which O'Malley is going to seek buy-in for his revenue package. The governor said again yesterday that he would like the Democrat-led legislature to take quick action on his plan in a November special session, even if he is not certain of its success as lawmakers convene.

"Sometimes people only reach settlement on the courthouse steps," O'Malley told reporters.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said that he had not spoken to O'Malley recently about a referendum but predicted that it would increase the odds of a bill getting through his chamber, which has been the more hostile to slots proposals in recent years.

"Even those who have trepidation about slots would give some consideration to a referendum," said Busch, who opposes slots. "I've always stated that I thought an appropriate direction would be a referendum."

Putting the issue on the ballot would require three-fifths majority votes in the House and Senate, more than the simple majorities needed to pass a slots bill outright. The referendum probably would appear on the ballot in next year's presidential election.

Miller, who discussed slots with O'Malley this week in a phone call, cited the delay as one reason for opposing a referendum, which Miller publicly supported during a 2004 debate on slots.

"People elect us to make decisions," Miller said. "If the governor can't get his slots bill through the House of Delegates, he needs to tell the people that he can't keep his campaign promise."

As a candidate, O'Malley advocated placing a limited number of machines only at tracks to prop up Maryland's storied horse racing industry. Last month, he said would propose a broader bill, one "very similar" to a failed 2005 plan that sought to legalize 9,500 machines at racetracks and other locations in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties.

O'Malley said that any delay created by a referendum would force him to find money elsewhere to balance the budget in coming years. But his plan assumes very little revenue from slots initially -- only $27 million next year -- given the time it would take for the machines to come online.

Eventually, O'Malley estimates, slots would generate $550 million a year for the state, one of the larger components of his package.

A referendum probably would prompt a pitched battle between gambling interests and slots foes, with an uncertain outcome.

A Washington Post poll in June 2006 found that about six in 10 voters favored slots at horse-racing tracks but that only about one-third thought they should be allowed at other places, such as bars, restaurants or hotels.

In the 2005 bill that O'Malley cited as a model, only one racetrack in Maryland, Laurel Park in Anne Arundel, would have been eligible for a slots license. Other venues were to be off interstates in Frederick and Harford counties and at the state-subsidized Rocky Gap Lodge in Allegany.

A luncheon O'Malley hosted Monday for freshman legislators was among the meetings at which a referendum was discussed.

Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery), who raised the issue, said he opposes slots but would be willing to consider letting voters decide to resolve "a divisive issue on which we haven't been able to reach consensus. . . . I think a lot of us feel that way."

It also appeared yesterday that Miller's opposition would not be universal in his chamber.

"I think it's something that's worthy of consideration," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "It has the potential to break the logjam at this point."

O'Malley also continued yesterday to battle resistance to a special session. Some leading lawmakers, including Busch, suggest that they should wait until their annual 90-day session starts in January to weigh a series of fixes to Maryland's $15 billion general fund budget.

But O'Malley is counting on more than $500 million in increased revenue starting in January -- from higher income, sales, corporate and tobacco tax collections -- to help balance the budget in coming years.

"The math is even more difficult if you put this off," O'Malley said. "I think that the potential downside and damage of waiting any longer is a much greater . . . than the real possibility of a stalemate."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company