Slot machine gambling could once again dominate the General Assembly's agenda when lawmakers return to Annapolis in January, legislative leaders predicted Wednesday, even as they reiterated their sharp divisions on expanded gambling.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) told an audience of business executives that he will revive his push to allow slot machines in the state, estimating that Maryland loses half a billion dollars each year, "and probably even more," in money being gambled out of state.
"The governor, the speaker and I need to get together and solve the slots situation," Miller said at a Maryland Chamber of Commerce luncheon. "We can do it. We will do it. And like [former] governor William Donald Schaefer used to say, we should do it now."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has made the legalization of slots his keystone initiative since taking office but has failed repeatedly to build consensus for a plan. Ehrlich has run into strong resistance not just from House leaders, but also from rival factions within the business community, each of which wants to carve its own cut of the proceeds from slots. Those divisions helped squelch an effort in September to put a gambling initiative on the November ballot.
After Miller spoke, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) reminded the gathered business leaders why the issue has remained so intractable.
Busch said every proposal to date has concentrated slot machine parlors "in Democratic districts," such as Prince George's County and Baltimore, despite strong objections from officials in those jurisdictions.
"I think we ought to put [slots] at all the golf courses and country clubs in the state," Busch joked. "That's where all the discretionary income is."
The quip brought only a smattering of chuckles from the group, which has backed Ehrlich in his call for the state to raise money by legalizing the machines.
William R. Roberts, president of Verizon Inc. and chairman of the chamber's board, told the gathering that the business group wanted to send an unambiguous message to Busch on this subject.
"Particularly to the speaker," he said, "we call for carefully regulated legalization of slot machines."
To put some force behind that message, Chamber of Commerce Vice Chairman Terry F. Neimeyer announced that the group was reviving its long-dormant political action committee. He said the chamber would be watching the votes of every lawmaker during the next two legislative sessions and would reward with campaign donations those who make pro-business votes.
Legislators who are rated by the group as having voted against business interests could see donations funneled to challenger candidates in 2006, said Neimeyer, who is chairman and chief executive of the engineering firm KCI Technologies Inc.
"This is part of our getting dangerous," he said, referring to a rallying cry from Ehrlich, who said business groups will "be dangerous" only if they do more to exert political pressure on state lawmakers.
Miller said the presence of slots in surrounding states keeps pressure on lawmakers to legalize the machines, though some of the fiscal concerns that helped fuel the slots debate in Annapolis may have faded by January.
Earlier this week, state budget analysts predicted that a budget gap once expected to exceed $1 billion in the next fiscal year will actually be closer to $388 million. House Minority Leader George C. Edwards (R-Garrett) told business leaders Wednesday that he thought closing the gap will be "manageable."
Still, the budget pressures will not disappear. Busch predicted a $250 million increase in the state's Medicaid costs and a need to find $490 million during the next session to pay for the so-called Thornton Commission education reforms that passed in early 2002.
"As you've heard," Miller told the gathering, "the cupboard is bare."