When Del. Peter Franchot decided recently that the debate over legalizing slot machine gambling had grown too complicated to resolve in the 90 days afforded the Maryland General Assembly, he drafted a bill that would delay the matter for a year.
But in order for his proposed moratorium to be taken seriously, it needed hefty backing from members of the House of Delegates in the form of additional names on the sponsor line. So Franchot turned to his colleagues in Montgomery County.
"I got 25 signatures in the first 15 minutes," said Franchot (D). "That should give you some sense of what a major force Montgomery County can be on this issue."
Montgomery County has largely been viewed as a peripheral player on the subject of slot machine legislation in Annapolis this year. But as the annual legislative session enters its final weeks, that could change.
The county's legislative delegation, which boasts more members than any other jurisdiction, is largely lining up against proposals to use proceeds from slot machines to bulk up a cash-starved state budget, according to a Washington Post survey.
Of the 32 senators and delegates from the county, 22 described themselves as being against, or leaning against, any effort to expand legal gambling in Maryland. Eight lawmakers were uncommitted on the issue. Only two -- Del. Jean B. Cryor (R) and Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum (D) -- said they were leaning in favor of slots.
In addition, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has voiced opposition to the slots proposal being crafted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Duncan said he has told the county's legislative delegation there is no official county position on slots.
"But I know there's not a lot of support for it," Duncan said. "And with 32 votes, there's no question they will play an important role."
The positions reflect a level of disapproval for slots in Montgomery that does not exist in the rest of the state, according to recent polls. A January poll by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications found that 37 percent of residents in the Washington suburbs would support putting slot machines at Maryland's racetracks, while 45 percent opposed the idea.
The numbers are nearly flipped when the poll covers the entire state -- with 46 percent supporting slots, and 40 percent of Marylanders opposing them. The public sentiment is weighing heavily on the members.
"My [constituents'] mail is running 90 percent against slots," said Del. Jennie M. Forehand (D). "There are real concerns. I hope to find alternatives to slots, and we don't need to rush into this thing. I'm against it."
In the House, leadership on the slots issue is likely to come from House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D), and Montgomery County's two committee chairmen, Democratic Dels. John A. Hurson and Sheila Ellis Hixson.
Duncan, Hurson and Barve have worked closely with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to plot a strategy in the effort to defeat the slots proposals. The reason, Barve said, is "because it's awful public policy."
"There's no value to the economy," Barve said. "It soaks up disposable income and there are enormous social costs such as compulsive gambling and an increase in bankruptcy and stress."
Hurson agreed, saying, "I don't see this as a good strong revenue source for us."
Hixson, however, has been more sympathetic to advocates for slots who see the potential for using the newfound income to finance a major infusion of state support for public schools.
"If it lets us fully fund education," Hixson said, "I'd be inclined to support it. But this has really become a fluid issue."
In recent weeks, that fluidity has left Hixson and others who would like to see new money for education frustrated with the governor's office. It has widely been held that any viable slots proposal would have to come from Ehrlich, then be reviewed and amended by the legislature.
But more than halfway through the session, Ehrlich had made no progress on gambling, the hallmark of his agenda and the keystone of his effort to erase the state's $1.3 billion budget shortfall.
The delays help explain why most of those who have declared themselves undecided are members of the state Senate, where there is greater interest from those in leadership to back some form of slots proposal once the governor gives it some shape.
"I have not ruled anything out," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D). "Everything is on the table."
But other senators reached their opinions before the session even got started. Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D) co-chaired a committee to study gambling options for Maryland and said he found it a distasteful means of raising money.
Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld (D) said her objection was that, in her view, slots would have "a disproportionately negative impact upon the poor."
"The infrastructure costs, including the social problems resulting from gambling, outweigh any projected fiscal benefit," Grosfeld said.
Other delegations in the Washington area also are weighing in on the issue. In an informal survey of nearly half of Prince George's County's 31-member delegation, most lawmakers said they cannot endorse a plan to legalize slots. In Anne Arundel County, more than half the 20-member delegation is opposed to slots; in Howard, nearly half of the 11-member delegation is backing a moratorium for at least a year. Southern Maryland counties' 10 lawmakers are split about evenly for and against slots.
Based on the support from Montgomery County delegates for Franchot's proposal, delaying a decision on slots could, in the end, be where many local lawmakers find themselves on the issue. The proposed bill was filed with 67 co-sponsors, nearly half of the delegates in the House.
"I don't think anyone wants to vote on a bill that's thrown together at the last minute, and is filled with details that very few people fully understand," Del. Henry B. Heller (D) said.
"Waiting and studying the issue for a year," Franchot said, "may turn out to be the ideal solution."