One of Maryland's most senior, and most partisan, Democratic leaders said yesterday that his party will carry the burden of a state budget crisis if the legislature fails to legalize slot machine gambling.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) joined Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) at a news conference in Upper Marlboro and predicted that Democrats would face dire consequences for not passing slots legislation.
If the state faces a budget crisis, Miller said, "it's going to fall squarely on the Democrats for not moving forward on slots -- and rightfully so."
Miller also complimented Ehrlich for his rousing pro-slots speech at an Upper Marlboro forum, organized by the Maryland Horse Industry Board, that immediately preceded their joint appearance. "I agree with every single word the governor said today," Miller said.
Party regulars said Miller's remarks provided the strongest evidence to date that a split over slots is starting to do serious damage to Maryland Democrats. Ehrlich seemed to revel in the moment.
After Miller stressed a second time that Democrats will be blamed if revenue does not meet the state's needs, Ehrlich smiled at Miller and said, "So who did you vote for for governor, really?"
Democratic leaders were not amused by the Senate president's comments. The party's state chairman, Isiah Leggett, said he was "disappointed that Senator Miller would take that position."
"I believe if there's any fault for the state's budget problems, they will rest squarely with the governor," Leggett said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he was baffled by the remarks. Busch led two years of opposition to slots in Annapolis but more recently has signaled an interest in compromise. He said it is up to the governor, as well as Democrats, to get slots passed.
"And if there are structural problems with the budget," Busch said, "I don't think anybody believes there's only one way to solve them. I'm certain there aren't many people in Maryland who want us to solve it with an unstable revenue source like slots."
Miller was unapologetic, saying he feels terribly for those in the state's horse industry who counted on the proceeds from slot machines to help protect their farms and businesses from competition in neighboring states.
"For these people to compete, we needed slots two years ago," Miller said. "And we desperately needed them a year ago. And now, terrible consequences will flow, and the Democrats will get the blame."
Miller's sentiments certainly resonated with many of the 250 horse industry insiders who attended yesterday's forum. Many said they believe that Democrats in Annapolis have failed to recognize the value of the state's 20,000 horse farms and the risk that the farms will fold.
Henry Holloway, a large Maryland feed supplier, said he believes that there is a misperception that all horse breeders are wealthy and therefore do not deserve help from the state. William K. Boniface, a breeder and trainer based in Harford County, said that since Pennsylvania approved slot machines for its race tracks this summer, the industry has faced an especially bleak future in Maryland.
"For us to survive," Boniface said, "we're going to need something to put us on equal footing with our neighbors."
Most in the crowd of breeders, racetrack owners and other industry representatives cheered loudly for Ehrlich when he told them that he would not give up on a gambling expansion.
"It's time that the leadership -- part of the leadership -- in Annapolis heard the people," Ehrlich told them. "It's time to get it done. We can get this done."
Getting it done, however, still hinges on some agreement among Ehrlich, Miller and Busch. The three agreed to negotiate earlier this summer, when Miller approached Busch with an offer to broker a deal that would include putting the matter on the ballot in November in the form of a constitutional amendment. Busch assured Miller that he could be flexible about the contents of a bill, on the condition that everyone agreed it first would have to pass muster with voters.
But that agreement has lost traction. Busch has continued to back a version of slots legislation that neither Ehrlich nor Miller wants. And the governor and Senate president have refused to get firmly behind the idea of a constitutional amendment for slots.
As if to punctuate the division within the party, Miller reiterated his opposition yesterday, saying: "I don't like the idea of a referendum. To be honest, I'm vigorously opposed to it."
Busch said he did not know how to respond to that.
"I don't know why he takes many of the stands that he takes," Busch said of Miller. "But it certainly seems to me it's in direct contrast to what everyone else in this party is trying to accomplish."