It may have been a joke, but no one was laughing.

A letter from Democratic Del. George W. Owings III to the Calvert County commissioners suggested that their state funding could be jeopardized if they do not back Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's plan to legalize slot machines.

The letter, which was dated Monday, was sent to Calvert Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) and requested "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."

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

The letter was perceived as a threat in Calvert, which like other fast-growing Southern Maryland counties is dependent on state funds for new roads and schools. Consequently, individual commissioners started formulating their positions on the controversial issue, only to learn by the end of the week that Owings meant the letter to be a joke -- presumably a little ribbing from a Democrat to a Republican that they were going to have to deal with the controversial issue now that Maryland has a GOP governor.

"That's why I'm calling it a missive," Owings said. "It was intended for David."

Owings said there was "nothing to it."

"There is nothing expected in writing," he said. "There hasn't been any referendum."

Hale was certainly fooled by the letter, which came on stationery bearing the official House of Delegates letterhead.

In fact, he didn't know it was a joke until he called Owings personally.

"He said he had written it basically to the commissioners, that he had put a lot of missives in the letter, and he thought it would be taken that way," Hale said.

After learning of Owings's stated intention, Hale recommended calling off an effort by fellow commissioners to state their positions on slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown) was not laughing when she learned that Owings was calling the letter a joke. She called Owings's sense of humor odd.

The reaction to the letter, though, underscored the tension over the state budget shortfall. It also unearthed the concern that some officials have about the slot machine proposal.

Though gambling was an issue addressed by state and local candidates in the recent election campaign, Owings's letter certainly forced them to refocus on their stance on the issue.

Commenting on Owings's letter, Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's and Calvert) reaffirmed his ardent opposition to gambling on moral principles.

"The bottom line is we don't want it," Dyson said. "It's clearly an addiction or a compulsion. When people get hooked on it, there's nothing they can do until they get down and out."

Calvert County Commissioner Gerald W. Clark (R-Lusby) voiced support for slot machines at four racetracks but opposition to casino gambling.

For now, though, the commissioners won't have to respond to Owings's letter.

"I wouldn't even know how to respond," Hale said.