Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s goal of legalized gambling in Maryland, his signature program that dominated two General Assembly sessions and triggered a round of negotiations this summer, now appears more elusive than ever.
Recent talks of a compromise that would have placed the matter before voters in November broke down yesterday. Aides to the Republican governor and Democratic House leaders, who broached the proposal for a deal last week, said they see no clear path to an agreement.
"I have no reason to be optimistic," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The governor and Busch now appear to be scuffling over who will bear responsibility for any political fallout generated by the failure to bring slot machines to the state, advocates and lawmakers said this week.
State Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane placed blame squarely on Busch and predicted that "ultimately, it will become a major election issue and will cost Speaker Busch his leadership seat."
However, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006, had a different view of the deadlock: "If the governor can't get his top priority through the General Assembly, it will speak volumes."
The failure to resolve the matter this summer has had other implications for both supporters and opponents of the gambling initiative.
In an interview yesterday, Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos said his family's plan to purchase the harness track at Rosecroft, a possible future home to slot machines, has been put on hold.
"It's in a suspended state, but I wouldn't say it couldn't be revived," Angelos said.
Though Angelos said there were many factors at play in the decision to slow his pursuit of the financially troubled racetrack, one person familiar with the deal said the baseball owner's family had calculated that it would lose several million dollars a year at Rosecroft until the arrival of slots.
The minority owner of the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, Joseph A. De Francis, predicted yesterday that the lack of a timely resolution to the slots debate could spell doom for the state's entire horse racing industry.
De Francis said the prospect of a deal for slots, which could infuse the industry with tens of millions of dollars each year, has been barely containing the industry's exodus to Pennsylvania, where the machines recently became legal.
He said this summer's inaction could unleash that exodus and likened himself to a man "standing at the bottom of a dam that is about to burst."
"We're looking up at the dam, and we see the water slopping over the lip, and we hear the timber starting to creek and groan, and we're hoping someone will come and save us from seeing this burst over top of our heads," he said.
Opponents of expanded gambling said the longer they succeed at keeping slot machines out of Maryland, the clearer it will become that slots are not the answer to the state's economic woes.
"History tells us that, as the economy gets better, the ardor for slots starts to fade," said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for StopSlotsMaryland.
Duncan, who has emerged as a leading critic of slots, agreed, saying he now sees no urgency to the issue. "I think the governor missed his opportunity," Duncan said. "He had a chance to bring people together this summer and really make something happen. But now, with the improving economy and better revenue coming in, it's hard to believe the interest will still be there" when the legislature convenes in January.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who earlier this summer likened himself to a diplomatic envoy as he tried to revive negotiations between Ehrlich and Busch, said the past few months have been frustrating.
An ardent supporter of slots, Miller said yesterday that he did everything a battlefield general would do when approaching the logjam.
"I put everything in play. I positioned all my troops. But at a certain point, the gods of the battlefield take over," Miller said.
The Senate president then reiterated his concern that the moves by his House counterpart will hurt Democrats on Election Day in 2006.
"It gives Republicans a ready-made issue," Miller said. "Trust me on this. Some people know sports. I know politics. It's clear."
Johns Hopkins University political science professor Matthew Crenson said it is too soon to predict whom, if anyone, voters will hold accountable for the slots stalemate.
"It will give the governor a certain leverage, to argue that he couldn't get cooperation from Democrats in the state legislature," Crenson said. "But if Democrats try to use this issue, they can say, 'We wanted to bring this to a vote so the people of Maryland could decide, but the governor has refused to do so.' "
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.