Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch submitted draft legislation to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday that would allow 13,000 slot machines in Maryland, and would be, in Busch's words, "the last, best chance" to expand legalized gambling this year.
The legislation formalizes the compromise that Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has been floating for several weeks: offering the governor help in winning passage of his top initiative on the condition that final approval of a slots measure rests with voters.
Having handed the proposed legislation to two of Ehrlich's top aides, Busch declared that the outcome on slots now rests firmly in the governor's hands.
"Ultimately, the governor is the person who's going to have to determine whether this will take place or not," Busch said. "I think the House has come more than halfway."
Ehrlich said yesterday that he plans to carefully review the proposal, but he offered only a tepid assessment of the latest development. "It's the first tangible sign that the speaker has moved on the issue. That's the good thing," the governor said. "On the negative side, it's almost two years late."
Until recently, Busch has led an effort to block slots, which he said he still considers "bad public policy."
He said the latest effort is aimed at settling an intractable dispute that has dominated the past two General Assembly sessions.
Whether it represents a new, if narrow, window for slots to be approved in Annapolis this summer will depend on the ability of the three key players to find common ground. Busch, Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) have been at odds over slots all year.
And yesterday, there were signs that those differences remain. Even while Busch's proposal was being printed in the State House, the midday edition of the Annapolis Capital was hitting the streets with the headline: "Miller says new slots plan will fail."
In an interview later, Miller was dismissive of Busch's proposal, saying he had little faith in the speaker's willingness to compromise.
"If the governor wants to start up [talking with Busch] again, that's his business," Miller said. "He's wasted my entire summer. Every time you think there's a breakthrough, he retreats. It's like you're dealing with a child."
Miller said the reason for his grim assessment was that Busch's proposed legislation is largely unaltered from the version the House proposed earlier this year. It would put slots at six locations across the state, all but one of them -- Laurel Park -- on publicly owned property.
It proposes slots for Timonium, a racetrack site in Baltimore County that the governor has refused to consider. And it has the state build slots facilities and lease them to the highest bidder, an idea both Ehrlich and Miller have opposed.
Busch argued yesterday that his model offers key advantages: The locations capture traffic from out of state; the state receives the highest profits by putting licenses up for bid; and the process can't be rigged by wealthy insiders.
Busch said the proposal is a starting point, adding that "every detail of location and structure of this bill is open to good-faith negotiation."
The one exception -- that the measure go before voters -- may be the toughest obstacle.
To put the matter on the ballot, the legislature must pass a constitutional amendment, which is then subject to referendum. But the amendment must first win the support of 60 percent of the House and Senate -- a tall order for such a controversial bill.
Those votes will be "very difficult to garner," Ehrlich said. And it will put a stopwatch on the entire negotiation, because the General Assembly would need to vote by Sept. 8 to have time to place it on the November ballot.
No problem, Busch said. If the three leaders can iron out the details, he said, the whole matter could be resolved in a single day.