Two weeks of high-level talks about legalizing slots in Maryland have failed to gain traction because of basic disagreements between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
At a Wednesday night meeting with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Busch said he would take the negotiations no further until the governor commits to putting the matter before voters in November.
The Republican governor has repeatedly voiced his distaste for this approach in speeches and interviews.
"If he's not interested in [a referendum], I don't know how you make this happen," Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said yesterday.
When asked whether this would end the three-way talks that Miller (D-Calvert) initiated May 5, Busch said, "I don't know at this point if there is a next step.
"If there's any next step," he continued, "it's for the governor to sit down with the Senate president and the speaker of the House and say, 'I want to do this.' Otherwise, it's just not going to work."
The breakdown marks the latest twist in a saga that began with Ehrlich's 2002 election and has dominated much of the General Assembly's energy ever since. With help from Busch, slots opponents have twice blocked efforts by Ehrlich and Miller to navigate a gambling proposal through the legislative process.
After a slots plan failed to emerge at the close of legislative business in April, Miller reached out to Busch over prime rib in Annapolis and asked him to consider working out a deal with the governor that could be brought to lawmakers during a special summer session and placed before voters in November.
Busch said he was willing to talk and agreed to take a major step toward compromise by announcing that he no longer considered Ehrlich's support of a tax package a prerequisite to any slots plan.
The three men met in the governor's mansion for an initial discussion, and relations were cordial. But Ehrlich has publicly remained cool to the key feature of the offer to Busch -- that the matter go before voters.
And Ehrlich's aides said they would not commit to a referendum until they heard details from Busch about what a slots bill would look like, defining venue locations, numbers of machines, the distribution of proceeds and ownership and management issues.
Busch said yesterday that he can't imagine that happening without the direct involvement of the governor. "The only way this happens is if the governor is a participant, and is the lead participant," he said.
Reached yesterday, Miller remained tight-lipped about the status of what he described as "shuttle diplomacy.
"I'm not going to have any comment on anything unless there's progress made," he said. "All I can say is, we're going to continue to communicate."