A measure mandating a one-year study of slot machine gambling won the unanimous support yesterday of a key House of Delegates committee, but gambling proponents said the vote would do nothing to stop Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to legalize slot machines in Maryland.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a leading slots opponent, proclaimed that the 22-0 bipartisan vote would send a strong signal to Democrats and Republicans alike that there is growing momentum to postpone action on Ehrlich's plan so that a more thoughtful proposal could be formulated.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell was at a loss to explain why Republicans on the committee unanimously endorsed a plan that he said the governor opposes, though many of those members campaigned against slots.
"We understand that there is a sentiment out there to study slots, and the governor respects that sentiment, but studying slots for a year does not fund education, whereas the governor's slots proposal provides an enormous increase in education funding," he said.
Top lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly this week ripped Ehrlich's latest plan to put one-armed bandits at four racetracks, saying he misled them about the fact that the new proposal would give track owners a bigger share of the $1.5 billion jackpot than it would give public schools. Gambling foes and supporters alike said that Ehrlich (R) was losing ground on the issue after fumbling two attempts to craft a detailed gambling proposal.
But yesterday, Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee and gambling lobbyists said that the vote to establish a 14-member commission was in no way a repudiation of the governor -- and in fact was a way to move slots forward.
Del. James E. Rzepkowski (R-Anne Arundel) and Del. Jean B. Cryor (R-Montgomery), both members of the committee, said they contacted the governor's lobbying team before casting favorable votes. Ehrlich's office, they said, took no position.
Both said the measure calls for a study, not a moratorium on expanded gambling. Thus, they said, it would not preclude a slots bill from passing this year.
"It's not a breakthrough at all," Cryor said. "It's just one more step in this slowly moving parade."
Rzepkowski and William Pitcher, a pro-slots lobbyist for the Maryland Horsebreeders Association, said that the move is merely procedural. If the Senate had sent a bill to the House first, Busch could have killed it by refusing to consider it before the session ended Instead, the study bill -- if approved on the House floor -- would move over to the Senate where slots proponents could amend it to allow expanded gambling.
The whole goal, Rzepkowski said, is to ensure that the issue will be decided at the end of the session by a conference committee, which consists of a small group of members appointed by the leadership of each chamber.
"That's where the differences will be worked out," he said.
Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who has pushed for a one-year moratorium on slots, called that the logic of desperate people.
"If the speaker doesn't want to appoint a conference committee, he doesn't have to, or he can appoint members to the conference committee that are under very strict orders to accept only a study," he said. "This is a procedural Hail Mary."