CHESAPEAKE BEACH – Gov. Robert Ehrlich on Wednesday made what may be his last public appeal for a bill to legalize slot-machine gambling, saying it won’t be a possibility until 2007.
With five days left in the 90-day legislative session, Ehrlich’s slots initiative has languished as the House of Delegates and the Senate have yet to begin forging a compromise on their separate versions of the bill.
In the latest of a series of late-session appearances to raise support for some of his foundering legislative initiatives, the governor visited a resort in Chesapeake Beach, the town Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. calls home.
Ehrlich pointed to the tidy Rod ‘N’ Reel hotel and restaurant, with its bingo and legal slots parlors, as proof that expanded gambling does not necessarily lead to social ills and could lead to economic prosperity.
This year’s slots bill is the last chance to make that possibility a reality, he said.
“I’ve already been told by the Democratic leadership that my name and a slots referendum will never be on a ballot at the same time,” said Ehrlich, who is up for re-election in 2006.
Miller, a Calvert Democrat and the Republican governor’s most powerful ally on slots legislation, was less than upbeat about prospects of a last-minute compromise.
“I think it’s dead, dead, dead, quite frankly,” Miller said, adding that the House currently has custody over both versions of the bill.
Ehrlich himself has not been enthusiastic about the future of slots. He said in an interview Tuesday with Capital News Service that the initiative is among those that are “very, very difficult issues that, right now, most probably will not pass.”
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, was unavailable for comment Wednesday but has said his chamber would not accept anything less than its version, having passed it by the narrowest of margins.
The two chambers differ on the number of slot machines to be allowed, their locations and on the amount slots operators would get from net profits.
The governor did not mention school construction funding, a key selling point on his slots initiative this year. Instead, he emphasized the other major reason he’s given for slots — saving the Maryland horse racing industry.
“If this bill does not get done this year, you’re now waiting two additional years,” he said. “I cannot tell you how many breeding operations, veterinarians, farms, pieces of that important industry we will lose if we wait two additional years.”
The House reworked the budget to include enough money to meet the amount recommended for next fiscal year by a state task force to begin fixing the school system. The House has not suggested funding sources for the years beyond 2006.
Ehrlich denied speculation in several news reports that some slots proponents were using a House proposal to cut the property tax rate to gain leverage on the slots matter. But he did not rule it out.
“We’ll try anything. I hadn’t thought of that one; maybe I should,” Ehrlich said. “I’m not going to discuss the private conversation that I have with leaders of the General Assembly per the request of those leaders.”