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October 23, 2017

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Maryland governor rejects slot referendum

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Gov. Robert Ehrlich rejected the House leadership proposal for a referendum on slot machines Monday and asked instead for a special session of the General Assembly next month to consider a slot machine bill.

The governor's response came in a letter delivered to House Speaker Michael Busch, who had proposed a special session to pass a constitutional amendment authorizing slot machines so that voters could decide in November if they want to expand legalized gambling.

The governor said the speaker's plan is "a profound departure" from slot machine legislation developed over the last two years by the administration and the state Senate under the leadership of President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

He said it is "a radically different alignment of venues, governance, development, revenue distributions and management" that was developed without input from race track owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys and other parts of the racing industry.

"I also continue to believe that rushing a new, incomplete and untested plan to this November's ballot as an amendment to Maryland's constitution is misguided," the letter said.

The Senate has passed a slot machine bill the last two years, but it has died both times in the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Delegates, with Busch leading the opposition.

The speaker contends the plan of the governor and the Senate would unjustly enrich a few owners of tracks and gambling companies at the expense of the state, which would not a get a fair share of slots revenues.

Earlier this month, he submitted a proposed constitutional amendment and a separate bill that would authorize as many as 13,000 slot machines at up to six locations spread across the state. The governor's bill as amended by the Senate authorized up to 15,500 machines, also at six locations. But they would have been concentrated along the Interstate 95 corridor in central Maryland.

When he submitted his plan, Busch said he would be willing to negotiate every aspect of his plan except the requirement that slot machines be authorized by a voter referendum.

Busch was meeting with House leaders Monday afternoon when the governor's letter arrived.

House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, emerged from the meeting to say that the position of the speaker and the leadership, "is that the only reason for a special session is to enact a ballot initiative. Otherwise, we'll do it in January when we're paid to do it."

Barve said Ehrlich doesn't want the issue to go to referendum because he's afraid the voters will reject it. "Ehrlich is not interested in slot machines. He just wants a campaign issue," Barve said.