09/07/2004 11:00PM

Slots question may go to voters

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Maryland's three top elected officials agreed Monday night to try to revive a plan to let voters decide in November whether the state should legalize slot machine gambling.

Senate and House leaders said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. softened his objections to a referendum on slots, creating an opening for the General Assembly to rush into special session and seal a deal on gambling, possibly as early as this week.

House Democrats were scheduled meet Wednesday to gauge support for the tentative deal that would allow between 13,500 and 15,500 slot machines to be placed at six sites in the state, including three racetracks. If they agree and Ehrlich, a Republican, remains on board, both houses would have to convene in Annapolis and vote by Sept. 20 to meet the deadline for placing a question on November's ballot, according to state election officials.

"This is the last best chance for persons who want a referendum on this issue to come forward and seek a compromise," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat, said Tuesday.

Ehrlich met with Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch on Monday night at the governor's mansion. Busch, a Democrat, has insisted upon a referendum, a persistent obstacle to a slots deal all summer.

"Nobody was more surprised than me that [Ehrlich] had changed his position," Busch said. "But he indicated he wanted to move forward."

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said that the governor's position has not changed dramatically but that Ehrlich "is going out of his way to accommodate the speaker's interests."

The governor has asked Busch to tally the votes in the House to see whether he can muster the support of 85 delegates, the number needed to pass the measure as a constitutional amendment. Doing so is the only mechanism for putting the matter on the ballot. Ehrlich has committed to delivering support from the 43 House Republicans.

While all three political leaders stopped short Tuesday of predicting success, Busch scrambled to pull House Democrats together to weigh in on the plan. In its current form, the deal would place slots at three tracks: Pimlico, Laurel Park, and Rosecroft. And, it would put three sites up for bid: the state's Cumberland-area golf resort at Rocky Gap, a state-owned site in Cambridge, and a downtown Baltimore site, possibly at the Inner Harbor.

Miller said several issues need to be resolved related to the percentage of profit that would go to the racing industry. He did not expect Senate support to be a problem.