The first in a series of meetings to resuscitate a slot machine gambling proposal in Maryland began this week, with the state's top three leaders expressing optimism that they could reach agreement.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) met for dinner Monday night with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), starting what the governor said would be intense discussions.

"This is going to be a joint effort," Ehrlich said yesterday. "We've agreed to have constant, almost daily, meetings."

Last week, Busch agreed to consider putting the issue on November's ballot so voters could make the call. The softened stance won support yesterday from his leadership team in the House of Delegates, some of whom had reluctantly accepted his anti-slots position.

"I told him it's time that we get this thing off the table and let the voters decide," said Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), who chairs the House committee on health and government operations.

The start of negotiations appears to have revived the chances for slots legislation to pass in Maryland, possibly during a special summer session.

The gambling expansion has been one of Ehrlich's top priorities since taking office two years ago, but it has twice been rejected by the House, under Busch's leadership.

Yesterday, several of Busch's committee chairmen said they have remained silent about their support for slots because they didn't want to publicly disagree with the speaker.

"There's a consensus [among House leaders] to take it to referendum," Hurson said. "My sense of it is people believe if the governor is willing to call a special session for the purpose of creating a referendum, we're going to be supportive of that."

Miller and Ehrlich, who are slots supporters, said yesterday that they left their meeting with Busch encouraged that they are engaging in productive negotiations.

"I'm confident we're making progress," Miller said, describing the relationship among the three political leaders as being "at an all-time high."

The governor also expressed optimism but said he remained cautious and is "treading very carefully."

The most glaring sticking point for the three is the question of a referendum, which would take place only if the General Assembly passes a constitutional amendment, a move that requires support from three-fifths of the members of each house.

Ehrlich has resisted that approach, reiterating yesterday that he would prefer to resolve the matter through legislation. He has said repeatedly that he believes his election in 2002 served as a referendum on slots.

Miller said the governor "hasn't moved off that yet" but said he believes that if House leaders can support a detailed slots plan that is to the governor's liking, "his opposition [to a referendum] would wane."

Settling on those details will be another formidable obstacle. Busch said his next step will be to open discussion about a slots bill to the legislature's Democratic caucus. In the final days of the legislature's recently ended session, the caucus members failed to agree on any one approach to expanded gambling.

Some delegates have supported publicly owned slots parlors, while others want to put the machines at Maryland's racetracks. Some have backed a referendum that simply asks voters to say "Yes" or "No" to legalizing slots. Others favored a plan that asked voters to say whether they wanted slots in their own county.

Then there is the question of how to divide the spoils. The lawmakers would need to agree on the percentages of the profits that go to the state, to the horse racing industry, to the gaming industry and to any other involved parties.

Finally, there is the question of whether to tie a slots proposal to other revenue measures, such as tax increases, which the governor has steadfastly opposed. Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a slots supporter, said she still believes any plan has to include "a bridge" that would help address a looming $800 million deficit. Hixson said the state wouldn't see slots revenue in time to resolve the budget issue.

"There's lots of different options," Hurson said. "That's what [Busch] wants the caucus to start talking about."