ANNAPOLIS – The state’s top three politicians called a late evening meeting Thursday to try to resolve a budget stalemate over whether slot machine revenue or taxes are the best fix for Maryland’s fiscal straits.
“It’s the last, best effort to put together a slots bill,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, on his way into Government House to meet with Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
But on the way out, Busch said little was resolved.
“The governor wants to take a look at the House proposal, but we’re still far apart on revenues,” the speaker said.
Ehrlich agreed the differences are great, saying, “I just suggested we either move forward or shut it down.”
Earlier in the day, Busch detailed plans for a slot machine bill that would locate gambling facilities on state-owned properties at six sites close to state borders, and in predominantly Republican districts.
The proposed locations include the Rocky Gap resort in Allegany County, the state fairgrounds in Timonium, and unspecified state property in Frederick, Harford and Dorchester counties.
Slots would also go to Laurel Park racetrack with the aim to make the facility a state-of-the-art racing venue to revitalize the state’s horse racing industry. Pimlico would not get slots, Busch indicated, but revenues from them would be devoted to preserving the home of the Triple Crown’s Preakness Stakes.
Busch, who spearheaded the defeat of Ehrlich’s slots bill last year, cautioned the gambling proposal was not an admission of defeat.
“This does not change the basic position of the House in terms of looking for revenues to balance the budget,” Busch said. “We’re still looking for a full, fair debate on a solution to the budget.”
The House has proposed a $670 million package of tax increases and reductions to plug an expected $830 million deficit in the next budget year.
The package is anathema to Ehrlich, who campaigned on a pledge not to raise sales or income taxes.
The slots-taxes stalemate has frustrated Miller, a slots proponent, to the point where he held up budget negotiations for nearly a week in an attempt to put pressure on the administration and the House to reach a compromise.
“The people want their elected officials to work together,” Miller said. “I’m trying to bring two giants together. But they’re both athletes. They’re both competitive. They’re not compromisers.”
Miller signaled Thursday that he may be inclined to appoint budget negotiators to get the process moving again now that all sides are talking.