ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the General Assembly’s top leaders on Tuesday put aside differences over now-dead slots legislation, if only for a few minutes, to celebrate the signing of an array of non-controversial bills into law.
The 2005 General Assembly closed Monday night nowhere close to an agreement on how many slot machines should be allowed, where they should go, who should own them and how much of the proceeds slots operators should get. It was the third year that Ehrlich’s signature slots proposal failed.
“It was a short night,” Ehrlich said, laughing.
“And a long year,” added House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Many of the bills signed Tuesday affect only specific local jurisdictions. The governor signed a bill reducing the amount the Baltimore Zoo must contribute to match state funds for buying three new trams. Some new laws change alcohol licensing fees in specific counties.
Others are more esoteric.
One extended the deadline for a report on the legibility of written drug prescriptions. Another required hepatitis C tests for boxers and kick-boxers before entering the ring.
But as soon as Tuesday’s bill-signing ceremony — the first of an expected three — was over, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the Republican governor should reconvene the Legislature to pass a bill legalizing slot machine gambling in Maryland.
“If I were the governor, I would say (to lawmakers), ‘Listen, the House has passed a bill; the Senate’s passed a bill; you stay there until you get the job done right,'” Miller told reporters.
The governor earlier said he was open to reconvening the Legislature to work out a compromise on slots.
“Count me in, as long as the speaker (of the House of Delegates) will negotiate in good faith,” Ehrlich said at a press conference Monday, less than one hour before the bill officially died at the close of the General Assembly.
Even if a special session is called, there’s no guarantee a compromise could be reached.
Minutes after the session ended, Busch indicated he’s not willing to wrangle any more with Ehrlich and Miller over the matter. He said slots legislation is not important enough to bring lawmakers back to Annapolis.
“Special sessions are for times of crisis in the state of Maryland. Certainly with a balanced budget (with) about a $400 million surplus, we are not in any type of crisis,” said Busch, who engineered the defeat of slots in each of the past three years.
Part of Ehrlich’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign was a pledge to bring slots to Maryland. But on Monday he said he wasn’t worried the slots issue will hurt his chances at re-election.
“It’s going to be an issue in the 2006 race, clearly,” Ehrlich said. “And there will be some members (of the Legislature) who will have a lot to answer for along the way.”
This year, the governor tied his slots initiative to public-school construction funding, saying legal slots would bring in $100 million more for school projects.
Last fall, a task force led by state Treasurer Nancy Kopp found that Maryland’s school system was overcrowded and falling into disrepair. The panel recommended the state give $250 million each year for the next eight years to fix the school system.
Ehrlich’s capital budget initially authorized $157 million for school construction. But the two houses agreed to boost funding to $250 million for the fiscal year by skimming from various capital projects.
Under the Maryland Constitution, either the governor or a majority of each house of the Legislature may call a special session. It may deal only with a specific topic and may not last more than 30 days.
The governor called a special session last winter to pass an overhaul of the state’s medical malpractice system. A special session had not been held in Maryland since 1992, when it dealt with a budget deficit.
Unhappy with the result, Ehrlich vetoed the bill. But the Legislature overrode the veto to make the bill a law.