O'Malley To Push For Truce On Slots

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Maryland General Assembly's battle over legalizing slot machines has now lasted longer than the Civil War.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who made that wry observation last week, is staking considerable political capital on forging a truce in the next month. Whether he succeeds may well determine the fate of the entire special legislative session he has called to close the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

Though revenue from slots is just one part of the governor's budget plan, the issue, which paralyzed Annapolis during the four-year tenure of O'Malley's Republican predecessor and poisoned the relationship between the legislature's two Democratic leaders, is expected to be the most contentious.

The fight over slots has been shaped as much by the dueling personalities of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) as by policy differences. And yet another quagmire, lawmakers fear, could imperil other aims of the special session set to start Oct. 29, including an increase in the sales tax and an overhaul of the state's income tax brackets.

O'Malley has increasingly suggested that the best way to reach an accord on slots may be for the legislature, in effect, to agree not to resolve the issue -- and instead ask voters whether to welcome expanded gambling to Maryland. "We have beaten this dead horse into a coma, and we need to resolve this issue," he said. "It has been a monkey wrench in the workings of our democracy for the last five years."

A referendum, which would likely appear on the 2008 presidential ballot, would require legislative approval. It would require support from three-fifths of the House and Senate, a higher threshold than a bill directly legalizing slots.

But O'Malley has been trying, with at least some success, to persuade slots foes to support a referendum as a way to put the issue to rest.

"If there's an impasse over slot machines, a referendum may be the answer," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who said he does not support expanded gambling. "I think it makes it easier for folks to say, 'All right, I'm opposed to slot machines, but I'm willing to let the voters decide.' "

O'Malley's prospects remain far from certain.

Seeking leverage to force more spending cuts, Republican leaders have vowed to provide no help in passing a slots bill in a special session. Absent GOP support, passage of a referendum would require the votes of 29 of the 33 Democrats in the Senate and 85 of the 104 Democrats in the House.

Moreover, the governor has said his slots plan will eventually generate $550 million a year in revenue for the state, as well as $100 million a year to prop up the state's horse-racing industry. But he has yet to share key details that have sunk such legislation, including the location and number of machines.

"It's not as simple as saying, 'We're going to put it on the ballot,' " said Sen. Rona E. Kramer (D), chairwoman of the Montgomery County Senate delegation. "How are we going to deal with the details? And the devil is in the details on this one."

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