ANNAPOLIS – With three days to go in the General Assembly session, slots died, the budget finally moved and lawmakers are likely to leave town to face the $800 million budget shortfall next year.
“Slots isn’t even on life support,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. “It’s in the grave. It’s too little too late.”
Yet House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, indicated that his Ways and Means Committee will still vote on a slots bill before the scheduled end of the session Monday.
The House plan calls for 13,500 machines at six locations in Republican strongholds, including Rocky Gap Resort in Allegany County, the State Fairgrounds in Timonium, and Harford, Frederick and Dorchester counties.
It’s a bill that’s unlikely to please the governor, whose own slots proposal is likely to die in the House for the second consecutive year.
“The governor’s focus is with the rest of his legislative agenda. After the last meeting yesterday, the ball was left in the speaker’s court,” said spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, said Friday after a meeting with House leadership there would be no vote on a slots bill this weekend.
Miller held up work on the budget for much of the last two weeks in an attempt to pressure Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Busch into an agreement over how to fill the state’s budget gap.
But after late evening meetings Thursday failed to produce results, Miller gave up and allowed budget negotiations to begin.
The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was balanced with one-time revenue sources. The tense debate of the last two weeks focused on finding revenue sources for the 2006 budget. Ehrlich and Miller championed slots, while Busch proposed raising taxes.
The Senate approved a slots proposal more than a month ago, but the bill was stalled in Ways and Means in hopes it would be a bargaining chip in reaching a comprehensive solution to the budget.
The negotiations breakdown also essentially signals the end of Busch’s $670 million tax package that was proposed as an alternative to slots.
“The House presented a revenue package, and we had hoped the governor would accept that, but he’s said repeatedly he’s not going to accept tax increases,” Busch told reporters during an afternoon news conference.
Ehrlich has stridently rejected any increases in sales or income taxes, and championed slots revenues as the key to solving the state’s budget woes. And taxes were not expected to fare well in the more conservative Senate.
Busch has blasted the administration for threatening to cut funding for local governments and Medicaid to fill the budget shortfall, but said he was not willing to throw the 90-day session into overtime.
“It doesn’t solve the problem . . . I think we’ll balance the budget and go home,” Busch said.
In the last week, both Ehrlich and Busch floated the possibility of calling the General Assembly back into special session to find a comprehensive solution to balancing the budget in 2006. But Miller has scoffed at the idea of a special session, calling it a waste of money.
Miller and Busch broke the impasse Friday by appointing negotiators to reconcile the chambers’ versions of the budget. Sens. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s; and Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery; and Delegates Norman Conway, D-Wicomico; and Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, will lead the budget conference committees.