ANNAPOLIS – Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, lit into the governor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Thursday, claiming accounts of their negotiations over a slots deal were inaccurate and indicating he was set up to take the blame over their failure.
The harsh words came a day after negotiations on a November ballot referendum on slot machines among the state’s top three leaders broke down, leaving observers saying – once again – that the issue is dead.
“That Mike Miller is one hell of a Republican whip,” Busch said at an impromptu Thursday afternoon news conference, after being told Miller, D-Calvert, indicated he could deliver 13 of the 14 Republican senators for a referendum vote.
Busch said he spoke with Gov. Robert Ehrlich just an hour before the House Democratic Caucus met Wednesday, and the governor had said he could only get two of the 43 House Republicans to agree to the same limitations.
Slot machines have been a major issue in Maryland since Ehrlich was elected in 2002. The governor campaigned on the issue, pushing the licensing of slots as a way to help fund the state education system.
However, the House shot down the governor’s slots proposals twice in the past two years. At the center of the debate are the questions of how many machines should be allowed, and where they should be allowed.
The most recent version of the governor’s bill would mean placing slots in six locations in Maryland: Cambridge, Rocky Gap, near the stadium complex in downtown Baltimore, and at three existing racetracks.
To clear the impasse on slots, the state’s top three politicians agreed to let voters decide and were working to get the issue on the Nov. 2 presidential election ballot.
The slots bill would need votes from 85 of the 141 House delegates to make it onto the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. According to Busch, he and the governor agreed that if the governor could deliver 35 Republican votes, then Busch would deliver the Democratic votes needed to get to 85.
“You’ve got all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men . . . and they can get two votes,” Busch said about what he saw as the Republican governor’s lack of effort in whipping his party’s delegates.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday night in his office, Miller said that at the big-three’s meeting Monday, Busch agreed to take the governor’s version of the referendum bill to the House Democratic caucus, and said he would get the needed Democratic votes.
However, after the Wednesday caucus Busch announced that even without the governor’s 35 Republicans he could still deliver the 85 votes needed for the referendum, and that the governor must be open to further negotiations that would incorporate aspects of the House bill into the governor’s bill.
“We want the governor to step up to the plate,” Busch said after the caucus. “We’re ready to go to referendum.”
But, Miller insists that there was never any talk of the House bill at the Monday meeting.
“Every conversation I’ve had with the speaker has been about the governor’s bill,” Miller said. He added that no matter if you agree with his politics, “this governor is entitled to be dealt with truthfully.”
Miller also said that passing a bill as important as a slots referendum takes “craftsmanship, time, and patience,” and that Busch did not deliver on his Monday guarantee.
“He didn’t have the time, energy, or enthusiasm to deliver the caucus votes,” Miller said.
“What does Miller know?” responded Busch on Thursday. “He’s got 47 members (in the Senate), I’ve got 141 (in the House).”
Miller was on a plane to a forum in Santa Barbara, Calif., and could not be reached for comment. – 30 – 9-9-04