The Maryland House of Delegates faced mounting pressure yesterday to approve a plan to legalize slot machines, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. maneuvered to exploit divisions among Democratic House leaders and the Senate budget committee voted to link the entire state budget to the approval of slots.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), an opponent of expanded gambling, continued to say he is prepared to run out the clock on the legislative session without bringing the slots bill to a vote. But Busch also continued to talk with slots backers, meeting privately with Ehrlich (R) late yesterday.
Ehrlich has made legalizing slot machines at four Maryland racetracks the cornerstone of his plan to close a budget gap expected to top $2 billion by June 2004 and the leading priority of his first legislative session.
After Ehrlich's original plan proved unworkable, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) rewrote the bill and muscled it through the upper chamber.
The bill rests in the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Del. Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery), a slots backer. Ehrlich aides are trying to implement a divide-and-conquer strategy by which they can persuade Hixson and another pro-slots delegate on Busch's leadership team, Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), to help move the bill forward.
Ehrlich described Hixson and Rawlings as allies, saying, "We have had discussions. . . . There's a great difference of opinion within the Democratic Party and within Democratic leadership in the House."
Added Ehrlich's lobbyist, Joe Getty: "We aren't the only ones that want the bill."
The governor predicted that Hixson would vote on the slots bill "probably later this week." But Busch said the governor is sorely mistaken.
At Busch's request, Hixson canceled a hearing on slots scheduled for yesterday. "I'm on Mike Busch's team," she said.
While Rawlings insists that the bill deserves an up-or-down vote in the House, Busch said the chamber has taken a position on slots, voting 126 to 11 to conduct a one-year study of expanded gambling. The House also has passed a balanced budget, Busch said, that does not rely on slot machine revenue.
Yesterday, the Senate budget committee put the finishing touches on its own fiscal plan, voting 10 to 3 to plug a growing budget hole with spending cuts, one-time accounting maneuvers and new taxes on business, health care and tobacco products other than cigarettes.
The Senate plan is substantially similar to the House proposal. Both chambers would cut spending by about $200 million more than Ehrlich proposed in January, though the House proposes to cut more deeply into higher education while the Senate would carve more deeply into funding for teacher salaries.
Both plans rely on more than $250 million in new fees and taxes, including an increase in the state property tax and higher corporate filing fees originally proposed by Ehrlich.
But the Senate would place a temporary surcharge on corporate income and triple the state tax on chewing and pipe tobacco and cigars.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the proposals is one of the smallest: The Senate budget plan includes $15 million in revenue generated from the sale of gambling licenses to three Maryland racetracks. Yesterday, the budget committee voted 11 to 2 to make a critical piece of the budget contingent upon passage of the slots bill. The action means that the budget would be thrown out of balance and the General Assembly would be thrown into extended session if the slots bill fails to pass.
The budget plan now moves to the full Senate, where it is expected to win approval later this week. Representatives of the two chambers will then meet in a conference committee to hammer out their differences.
Busch said yesterday that he wouldn't begin to discuss slots until "there's final passage of a budget. Whether or not we take it up after that depends on certain negotiations between the governor, the Senate president and myself."
In a meeting with House Democrats, Busch likened the House's strategy to the "four corners offense" made famous by University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, in which a team holds on to its lead by passing the ball around the court until the final buzzer sounds.
With just 14 days left in the legislative session, the buzzer is not far off.
"The speaker holds the final card," Miller said yesterday.
Ehrlich has ruled out a possible budget deal floated by some slots backers -- tying slots to a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to wipe out the state's long-term deficit and ensure funding for a landmark plan to increase state aid for public education.
"Increases to the sales or income tax of any kind are off the table" Ehrlich communication director Paul Schurick said.
But Miller said, "Anybody who rules anything out at this point is a fool." He added a warning: "If someone is totally unreasonable, I'll change sides."
Another possibility for forcing Busch's hand: Forty-seven House members could sign a petition to discharge the slots bill from Hixson's committee. The motion would require a majority vote to bring the bill to the floor, something even some members of Ehrlich's party are opposed to doing.
Busch warned that such a rare challenge to his authority would be "unwise" and "will never come to fruition."