Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) suggested Saturday that his efforts to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland are probably over until after the 2006 elections, unless House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) stops "screwing around" on the issue.
"If the speaker's ever serious about a bill, I will spend all night, however long it takes, to get it done," Ehrlich told reporters after a speech here to the Maryland Association of Counties. "If it's just screwing around, the way we have for 18 months, with a different position every week . . . we're done. The people will speak in 2006, believe me, on this issue."
Last week, Ehrlich rejected a proposal by Busch to put the issue before voters in November in the form of a constitutional amendment, a step Ehrlich argues is unnecessary given "widespread" support for slots across Maryland.
The move dashed prospects of a special session on gambling before legislators reconvene in January. On Saturday, Ehrlich suggested that he is unlikely to pursue the issue upon their return, unless he becomes convinced that Busch is not "wasting my time."
Busch spokeswoman Nancy Lineman said Busch was at a national legislative conference in Michigan on Saturday and unavailable for comment. She declined to respond to Ehrlich. Last week, Busch said Ehrlich had missed "a great opportunity" to move forward on the slots issue.
Even some prominent Democrats, however, have suggested that their party is most likely to be hurt by the issue if no agreement is reached by 2006, when the governor and members of the General Assembly will be on the ballot.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a slots advocate, said this month that voters will blame Democrats for the state's fiscal problems in 2006 if the General Assembly fails to pass slots legislation. Ehrlich has touted the initiative as a way to raise $800 million annually and help solve a chronic budget shortfall.
Besides differing over the wisdom of a constitutional amendment, Ehrlich and Busch also diverge over what a slots bill should look like. Busch's plan called for publicly owned facilities along interstates, an approach Ehrlich called "new and untested." He prefers legislation passed by the Senate during the last session that would put slots at three racetracks and three non-track locations.
Ehrlich's comments Saturday came after a half-hour address to county officials in which he advertised a new educational commission to be led by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), pressed the case for medical malpractice reforms -- and decried a tone in Annapolis that he said is becoming too much like Capitol Hill's.
Ehrlich, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives before his 2002 election as governor, reminisced about his early days in Annapolis when legislators, he said, put aside philosophical differences at the end of the workday.
"Our goal is to return that cultural attitude that existed for so long back to Annapolis, Maryland," Ehrlich said, describing Capitol Hill as "a sick culture" where partisan rivals "denigrated you as a person."
The only new initiative previewed in the speech was the education commission to be headed by Steele, whom Ehrlich introduced as "a rock star" for his upcoming prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in New York.
Ehrlich said he is putting the "finishing touches" on the scope of the commission, which will examine such issues as charter schools, early childhood education and how to steer better teachers into poorly performing schools. "We believe charter schools are part of the wave of the future," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich also included a plug for his efforts to curb doctors' malpractice insurance costs by reforming tort-liability laws.
A bill pushed by Ehrlich during the last legislative session included several measures that would have limited payouts to injured patients. A task force he appointed is exploring other approaches aimed at reducing medical errors and reforming insurance coverage.