ANNAPOLIS – Slot machines are almost surely dead for this year and the leaders of the General Assembly bickered Thursday about how and why they perished.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. accused House Speaker Michael Busch of stacking the slots execution committee with opponents.
“I am tired of dealing with timid, gutless people who don’t do right by the people,” Miller, D-Calvert said.
Meanwhile, Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he resented the attack, “I don’t go over to the Senate and tell the president of the Senate how to run his institution.”
While estimated slot revenues were reduced throughout the session from $395 million to $15 million, the state’s deficit grew to more than $2 billion. At the same time, Busch assailed Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s push for slots as unnecessarily urgent and improperly planned. Wednesday, the idea died with an overwhelming vote by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Miller, on the other hand, pushed slots from the beginning and redrafted Ehrlich’s bill to give more money for education. He then rallied his members to pass it 25-21.
Delaying those revenues, which, when the industry is mature, could produce $700 million annually, wounds the ability to adequately fund core programs, including an expansion of education funding, Miller said.
“Everybody could’ve joined hands and done right by the people, voted for slots and taxes,” said Miller, D-Calvert, his face reddening.
Next year is the year to get things done, Busch said. “If we want to do it right, take 270 days (until the next legislative session), consider all the options and draft a bill.”
Pro-slots delegates voted against the plan because it didn’t work, not because he twisted arms, Busch said.
When the committee swatted slots, Miller said, they left the pro-slots Senate unprotected like a “jackass in a hailstorm.”
Busch said a workable plan for the machines just wasn’t ready because it failed to foster competition, was incompletely debated and clustered machines in the wrong sites.
“This gave 7,000 machines to one company, 3,500 to another. If we’re gonna do this, it has to have competition,” Busch said. “No company should get more than 2,000 machines.”
“If we want competition with Delaware, put the machines at the borders of West Virginia and Delaware,” he said, not blue-collar neighborhoods in central Maryland. Both states already operate slots parlors.
Asked if landmark education funding could be done without slots, Busch answered two different ways. “I don’t know,” he said first, then later said, “Yes, if there is the will to pass significant tax increases.”
Ehrlich said the vote should have gone to the floor where all House lawmakers could have voted it up or down on its merits, and that to defeat it in committee was not the best governing method.
“That’s the way the system works,” Busch said, “It’s worked that way for years. This is democracy.”
“If the vote had come to the floor, we are confident they would have passed,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
But keeping slots alive won’t be the purpose of an extended session, Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr. said. Now the administration will aim its veto powers at the revenues Ehrlich said he would consider in conjunction with slots approval, including an HMO tax, a measure to triple the tax on non-cigarette tobacco products and so-called loophole closings.
A committee of delegates and senators could finish putting together a budget by today. It will separate the controversial revenues from the meat of the budget and include possible cuts to replace any revenue measures Ehrlich vetoes.
“We are in a big, big fiscal hole,” Fawell said, “The governor provided the Legislature a way to climb out of that hole.”
Having rejected slot machine revenue, “It is now incumbent upon them to make the very tough cuts in programs needed.”
Vetoing revenues and then blaming the cuts on the House, is not the answer, Busch said.
“Did I veto the bill?”
Don’t call the programs and education funding increases dead yet, Busch said. “The most substantive year we’ve always had is the second year” of a governor’s term. Capital News Service reporter Maria Tsigas contributed to this report.