A late night meeting among Maryland's three top elected officials has pumped new life into a dormant plan to let voters decide in November whether the state should legalize slot machine gambling.
Top Senate and House leaders said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) softened his objections to a referendum on slots, creating an opening for the General Assembly to rush into special session and seal a deal on gambling, possibly as early as this week.
House Democrats will meet today to gauge support for the tentative deal that would allow between 13,500 and 15,500 slot machines to be placed at six sites in the state. If they agree and Ehrlich remains on board, both houses would have to convene in Annapolis and vote by Sept. 20 to meet the drop-dead limit for placing a question on November's ballot, according to state election officials.
"This is the last best chance for persons who want a referendum on this issue to come forward and seek a compromise," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said yesterday.
The most significant breakthrough from Monday night's 90-minute meeting at the governor's mansion appears to be a willingness by Ehrlich to allow the matter to appear on the ballot. It is the one demand House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) insisted upon in order to negotiate, and it has been the persistent obstacle to a slots deal all summer.
Until Monday, Ehrlich had expressed a strong distaste for that approach. At the meeting, that position appeared to soften, according to both Busch and Miller.
"Nobody was more surprised than me that [Ehrlich] had changed his position," Busch said yesterday. "But he indicated he wanted to move forward."
Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said yesterday that the governor's position has not changed dramatically, but said Ehrlich "is going out of his way to accommodate the speaker's interests."
The governor has asked Busch to tally the votes in the House to see whether he can muster the support of 85 delegates, the number needed to pass the measure as a constitutional amendment. Doing so is the only mechanism for putting the matter on the ballot. Ehrlich has committed to delivering support from the 43 House Republicans.
In a brief interview, Ehrlich remained guarded yesterday, saying only: "Have I ever been optimistic about this issue? We'll know more tomorrow."
While all three political leaders stopped short yesterday of predicting success, Busch scrambled to pull House Democrats together to weigh in on the plan. In its current form, the deal would place slots at three horse tracks: Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft. And, it would put three sites up for bid: the state's Cumberland-area golf resort at Rocky Gap, a state-owned site in Cambridge and a downtown Baltimore site, possibly at the Inner Harbor.
Miller said several issues need to be resolved related to the percentage of profit that would go to the racing industry. He did not expect Senate support to be a problem.
Discussions of a deal come as the Board of Elections is set to start the process today of certifying November ballots. Linda H. Lamone, the elections administrator, said "the absolute latest" that a measure could be added is Sept. 20.
Elections officials face several deadlines. The federal government, for example, recommends leaving a window of 45 days, which would start 10 days from today, to transport ballots to military locations and overseas voters. "Sometimes that's not doable," Lamone said.