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."
O'Malley has had a devil of a time uniting the two warring generals in Annapolis. Miller and Busch have cooperated in recent years on many issues. But slots has driven such a wedge between them that they rarely meet with one another.
Miller, a gregarious lawyer who has presided over his chamber for more than two decades, is among the legislature's biggest slots advocates, while the more reserved Busch, a former football coach serving his fifth year as speaker, remains a slots foe.
Miller quickly aligned himself on the issue with former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), passing bills out of the Senate each of Ehrlich's first three years in office that would have legalized as many as 15,500 machines. Busch, whom Ehrlich and Miller characterized as an obstructionist, allowed a less-expansive bill to pass his chamber in 2005 -- but it was declared dead on arrival in the Senate.
In an interview, Miller expressed distaste for a referendum, saying he preferred a direct vote by the legislature. But he said a referendum might be the only way to get the bill through the House.
Miller said that slots should be part of any revenue package passed in a special session. "All parts of the governor's plan are dependent on one another," he said. "It's a three-legged stool, with slots, tax increases and budget cuts. If you pull out one of the legs, the stool comes crashing down."
Busch, meanwhile, said he would prefer a referendum to a stand-alone bill. But he questioned the need to pass any kind of slots legislation during the special session.
Part of the rationale offered by O'Malley for holding a session this fall is that the state could benefit from increased collections from income, sales, corporate and tobacco taxes starting in January. If lawmakers wait until their regular 90-day session to raise those taxes, the increased collections would probably not start until July.
Because slots parlors will take some time to start operating, O'Malley is not projecting that they will yield much revenue for the state in the coming fiscal year.
"The reason we're coming here for a special session is the immediacy of revenue," Busch said. "Slots is not going to have an immediate impact on any portion of the budget."
Busch said it was also difficult to predict how delegates would react to a slots bill they have yet to see.
O'Malley has said his bill will be "very similar" to the bill that cleared the House in 2005. It called for legalizing 9,500 machines at tracks and other locations in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties. Some delegates said they fear that little else could get done if slots consume the special session.
"I don't want to see everything back up behind slots, because we have a substantial number of other things to do," said Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles). "If nothing else gets done because of slots, that would be a big failure."
But O'Malley told reporters last week that he believes a slots bill needs to be passed in a special session because otherwise, the issue could bog down the regular session, which starts in January.
"We've got a lot of really important issues to get to . . . that should not be held hostage to an issue that we've debated now for five long years," he said.
There are many wrinkles emerging in the debate. Senate leaders, for example, are exploring the idea of making a property tax cut proposed by O'Malley contingent on passage of a slots referendum. And some House members are pushing a measure that would prevent slots parlors from being in any county where a majority of voters do not support the referendum.
Slots proved so divisive during Ehrlich's tenure that O'Malley decided to hold off pushing the issue during his first regular legislative session, despite having advocated legalization at racetracks during last year's campaign. The new governor instead pushed measures that united Democrats, including record funding for school construction and the nation's first statewide law requiring government contractors to pay a "living wage."
As he has pushed for slots in recent weeks, O'Malley has conferred with Miller and Busch. But he has also made the case for a referendum directly to individual lawmakers. Though it is impossible to gauge the impact of O'Malley's efforts, interviews last week suggested growing -- but hardly universal -- interest in a referendum.
Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) said she viewed a referendum as a "lazy" way for elected officials to do their jobs.
If other members of the General Assembly had their fingers on the pulse of the community, there wouldn't need to be "a referendum to tell us what the people are saying," she said. But Benson said she probably would vote for a referendum if there is overwhelming support among her colleagues.
Del. Benjamin S. Barnes (D-Prince George's) said he is not a fan of referendums, but he said slot-machine gambling has become so divisive in the legislature that he could let voters decide its fate.
"In Maryland, we don't employ referendums but for extraordinary circumstances," he said, "and this may be one of those extraordinary circumstances."
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.