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May 13, 2004

If At First You Don't Succeed, Try A Special Session.

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

If I have to write another slots column, I'm going to pull my hair out! After dealing with this issue from every conceivable angle for the last two years, here we are again.

The talk in Annapolis right now is that the General Assembly may be called back to discuss a constitutional amendment in the form of a referendum question on slots.

Wait a minute! I thought we had dispensed with this subject back in April. Not to mention having supposedly addressed all of this during the 2003 session.

Like I've said before, just because we've dispensed with an idea does not mean it disappears from the radar screen. This is always true, but more so when the budget shortfall is severe and the revenue options are limited.

The details have been so well covered as to be boring. Horse tracks, off track betting locations, state-run, state-owned, privately operated, in Baltimore, in Frederick, and on and on.

The General Assembly has not found any basis upon which to form an agreement in two years. When a coalition of supporters gets formed, the opposition gets organized.

The big shots in this drama are as well known as their positions on the issue. Governor Robert Ehrlich supports slots at horse tracks, with the majority of the money going to fund the Bridge to Excellence in Public Education. Senate President Mike Miller (D., PG-Calvert) also supports slots at tracks, and is very concerned about the equine industry. Speaker of the House Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel) is absolutely against expanding legal gambling, and has been pretty consistent about that aspect.

The racing industry is behind this initiative big time, even with their campaign cash. Obviously, larger purses in Delaware and West Virginia are squeezing Maryland, and the horsemen (and women) are feeling the pinch worst of all.

So along comes the idea of a referendum. Actually, we talked a little about punting this question to the voters during Session. When the Ways and Means Committee finally held their public hearing on the Governor's slots bill (the last week of Session), one delegate offered an amendment calling for a referendum.

The Ways and Means Committee killed all of the amendments, then killed the bill, too. Slots opponents praised their own efforts, and cautiously celebrated the second straight defeat. Governor Ehrlich ruefully regretted the lack of several hundred million dollars spent by Marylanders in slots parlors and casinos outside of Maryland, and prepared to meet the promise he made to Maryland voters about cutting spending versus raising taxes.

Senate President Miller saw the writing on the wall. He recognized that Maryland voters would consider Governor Ehrlich a hero for cutting spending, while vilifying Speaker Busch for proposing a major tax increase. He also saw the Pennsylvania legislature poised to pass a slot machine bill.

So the President, Maryland's consummate political operative, invited the Speaker out to dinner in Annapolis recently. The subject of the dinner was to feel out the Speaker on the linkage between slots and taxes. The Speaker had stated previously that there would be no discussion of one without the other.

Well, it must have been a really good dinner! The day after the dinner, Speaker Busch was quoted saying that he didn't think it was necessary to link the two subjects. This after linking the issues every single day during two consecutive legislative sessions!

Needless to say, the opponents of slots once again feel that they've been sold down the river. I actually think they thought slot machine gambling was dead, at least until after the next election.

Not so fast, oh great and wonderful Oz! Like an obnoxious uncle that frequently overstays his welcome, slots has come back again and is knocking on the porch door.

This time, though, brave state legislators may find a way to avoid having to cast a tough vote. Instead of a recorded Floor vote on slot machine gambling, I anticipate that the vote will be to take the issue of slot machines to the voters on a ballot question on the November presidential election vote.

Don't fall pray to suggestion that just because Senator Miller and Delegate Busch like the idea that we'll end up voting favorably, though. There are many questions that have to be answered like:

  1. How many machines?
  2. Where do they go?
  3. Who owns them?
  4. Who operates them?

Any one of these questions could kill the deal, and several of them are deal breakers. A Special Session is severely limited in scope and schedule. I simply can't imagine how we get there.

This doesn't even begin to address the question of cost. According to the Department of Legislative Services, it costs the taxpayers of Maryland roughly $45,000 per day that we're in Session. If Session only lasted two weeks, that would be $675K. Imagine, though, how bad it would be if we stayed for the month! How does $1.3 million sound?

The fact is that this question should have been answered two years ago. We should have done our constitutional duty during the 2003 Session.

All we're doing now is wasting YOUR money because we just couldn't get it done during the last two legislative Sessions

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