Maryland's House Democrats came out strongly in favor of a referendum on slot machine gambling yesterday, only to find that support had evaporated among Republicans who had been pushing gambling proposals for the past two years.
Surrounded by 67 members of the House Democratic Caucus, Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel) said the members of his party had aligned solidly behind a plan to let voters decide in November whether the machines would become legal.
"I'm happy to say that the House Democrats stand in full support of giving the citizens of Maryland a say," said Busch, who has long stood in the way of a slots deal.
But an hour after the House Democrats met, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said it was not enough because the Democrats could not agree on what a slots plan would look like. He rejected attempts by some Democrats to alter his bill and said he could not entertain a special session without knowing for certain that Democrats were unified.
"I wanted names," Ehrlich said. "Eighty-five names in concrete. Public pronouncements for our bill."
The Democrats' evening news conference, which concluded with some members chanting Busch's name, served as a dramatic finale to a day that at times signaled hope, and then certain demise, for a slots proposal cobbled together Monday night by Ehrlich, Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
The three had agreed that -- as long as there was sufficient, bipartisan backing in the House -- the governor would support a special session of the General Assembly, meeting as early as tomorrow, to place a question about the legalization of slots in six sites on the Nov. 2 ballot, in the form of a constitutional amendment.
But the governor's aides said many GOP lawmakers were uncomfortable with the idea of the constitutional change, the only mechanism the state has for putting legislation to a public vote. At one point, they told Busch that they could muster support from only two of the 43 House Republicans.
"Republican delegates have made it clear in the last 24 hours that a sweeping, broad amendment to the constitution would be very difficult to support," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director. "It sounds to me like we're exactly where we've been for the past 18 months, which is nowhere."
After the strong show of unity from House Democrats, Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) challenged the governor to return to the table to broker a deal.
"We're waiting for him to tell us when the special session will be. Governor Ehrlich," Hixson taunted, "we're waiting."
Nothing doing, the governor replied at his own news conference, calling the effort "a waste of time."
The day-long odyssey in many ways mirrored this summer's debate over the governor's signature initiative, which at times seemed within easy grasp, only to evaporate when he and Busch tried to reach accord on the details.
The pace of negotiations quickened dramatically this week, as the Sept. 20 deadline for putting a slots referendum on the November ballot approached.
Yesterday's erratic ride, during which legislative leaders prepared their members for a hurried special session on slots and then slammed on the brakes, appeared to take its toll on all three of Maryland's top elected officials. "I think everything is dead in the water, just dead in the water," Miller said, reserving the brunt of his exasperation for Busch.
Miller said Busch could not bring consensus among House Democrats for the version of the slots plan agreed to at Monday night's meeting. Miller, acting as a broker between Busch and the governor, said it was clear even early yesterday that efforts to build support for the agreement were falling short.
Prince George's County delegates, in particular, were voicing open hostility toward the governor's plan, complaining that as many as three slots parlors could eventually be "dumped" into neighborhoods that could least afford the temptation.
The governor had discussed, and then retreated from, a plan to place slots at three horse racing tracks -- Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway -- and put three sites up for bid. Those were tentatively considered to be the state's Cumberland area golf resort at Rocky Gap, a state-owned site in Cambridge and a downtown Baltimore site, possibly the Inner Harbor. Prince George's lawmakers said they feared that gambling also could turn up at the National Harbor project along the county's Potomac shoreline.
As word of the discord reached Ehrlich, Miller said, "the governor became truly disheartened."
Miller said Ehrlich called him late yesterday afternoon and said, "It's apparent that this is not going to happen."
"I said: 'Call the speaker directly and meet with him and confront him with this. Work together. Find the bill you both can agree upon and put it on referendum and let's move forward.' "
The two spoke but failed to find common ground.
News of the plan's apparent collapse was greeted grimly by lobbyists and business executives with a stake in seeing slots pass in Maryland, many of whom viewed the week's progress as the first hopeful sign of a deal since Ehrlich took office two years ago.
Family members of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos had been so confident a deal was in the works that, earlier yesterday, they returned to the negotiating table with the owners of Rosecroft harness track, a potential venue for slots.
The status of those talks was uncertain last night. But Linda Winebrener, a lifelong horse owner whose husband helps run Rosecroft, said without slots, she doesn't expect anyone to come along to save the struggling track.
"The truth is, and this is only my opinion, that the only reason any of these gentlemen want the racetrack is for slots," she said. "They don't give a [hoot] about the horsemen or whether we have racing tomorrow."
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.