Maryland House of Delegates Majority Whip George W. Owings III has told Calvert County commissioners in a letter that while Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. intends to protect counties as much as possible from the sting of budget cuts, "there will come a time" when he will want to know "which counties did or did not support his position" on placing slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

Owings's letter to Calvert Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings), dated Monday on official House of Delegates letterhead, was taken as nothing less than a threat by some, particularly as local governments are bracing for funding cuts as the new Republican governor attempts to cope with a gaping budget deficit. Some feared it implied that if the commissioners didn't support slot machines, they would lose state funding desperately needed to build schools and roads in fast-growing Calvert.

Hale said he "didn't know what to think" and on Wednesday called Owings, a Democrat whose district includes northern Calvert.

Owings's explanation: "It was a joke," Owings said yesterday. "I put it to him as a joke.

"That's why I'm calling it a missive. . . . It was just a tongue-in-cheek to David."

It was a joke that not many got -- not Hale and not some of his fellow commissioners.

"That's hard to believe," said new Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown), who had to be told that Owings considered the letter a joke. "That's a very odd joke. . . . How should we take anything he says seriously?"

Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), an ardent opponent of gambling, still was unaware of Owings's "joke" when interviewed yesterday afternoon.

"It almost seems like he's putting [on] the pressure the governor didn't," Dyson said.

"I don't like that approach anyway. . . . This is a moral issue."

Owings began his letter to Hale by saying, "I am sure you have followed, with enthusiasm, the incoming Governor's position on slots at the four designated tracks in Maryland." He added that because Ehrlich "ran on a platform which included this proposal, I believe one could say a referendum has been held on the issue."

Owings concluded by saying that he was "requesting in writing, at your earliest convenience, the position of each Board member as it relates to Governor Ehrlich's proposal. I am sure there will come a time when the Governor will request information regarding which counties did or did not support his position on this issue, and I want to be prepared to address his inquiry."

Calvert County Commissioner Gerald W. Clark (R-Lusby) -- another newcomer -- said yesterday afternoon that he was also unaware that the letter was a joke. Clark obtained a copy of the letter after hearing talk of it. Clark, who supports slot machines at four racetracks but is opposed to "any other type of casino gambling," said he didn't feel "pressured about anything" after reading the letter.

But he did question the line about the referendum. "I'm not big on calling anything a referendum."

Neither Clark nor Shaw nor any other Calvert commissioners will be asked to state their position on slot machines now, according to Hale. A joke's a joke -- as long as Owings says the letter is.

"I'm certainly going to recommend to our board to take it as he intended it and not respond," Hale said.

What was Owings's intention? Hale speculated that it was a matter of a Democrat ribbing a Republican about a controversial issue: "Now that your governor's in, how are you going to deal with gambling?" Hale said.

As for Owings, he's still telling jokes -- this time about the media for taking the letter so seriously.

"The quote of the week," Owings said, "is: 'Thank God, you all haven't found my love letters.' "