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County lawmakers predict a slots push

January 06, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Sen. Donald Munson said Saturday he thinks Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich may cut state funding for Washington County government if local lawmakers don't support slot machines at racetracks.

Ehrlich's plan is to use slot machine revenue to help make up for the $1.3 billion shortfall projected by his administration for next year's state budget.

"Ehrlich's going to play hardball with us," Munson, R-Washington, said. "The state is broke. The state is very in debt. We're going to be asked to make these hard decisions, but we will make them."

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Munson, who said he "hates" slot machines, said he was not prepared to vote for them at this time.

Members of the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly met with the public Saturday morning at South Hagerstown High School, where Munson made his statements. About 60 people attended.

If lawmakers don't support slot machines, he said, it's likely Washington County won't "ever see morsels again."

After the meeting, Munson said the same would be true for Republican lawmakers across the state, because Republicans are expected to support the Republican governor-elect.

Ehrlich told The Washington Post he's telling county executives to "deliver a few votes" in their legislative delegations if they want to keep money they receive for public health programs, law enforcement, community colleges and transportation projects, according to The Associated Press.

Delegation Chairman Robert McKee, R-Washington, said he also thinks Ehrlich would play tough with the local delegation if it doesn't support slot machines, but he hopes it doesn't go as far as cutting funding.

"I would like to think not. There are real needs here," McKee said after the meeting.

He also said Washington County was a jurisdiction that showed strong support for Ehrlich in the election.

McKee said he would favor slot machines if the issue was put on a referendum and if jurisdictions had the power to opt out of using them.

An Ehrlich aide said Thursday the Ehrlich administration hopes to avoid taking the issue to referendum. The administration plans to allow the Legislature to make the final decision.

To do so, the Ehrlich administration will designate slot machine revenues for specific purposes in the budget. Most bills can be petitioned to referendum, but not legislation that appropriates money or raises significant state revenues.

If that's the case, McKee said he would have to wait until lawmakers begin debating the issue before he decides whether he would still support slot machines.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Saturday afternoon he doesn't feel pressured yet to support slot machines, but there could be consequences if the county decides to oppose them.

"If we don't support some avenue of it, there's probably going to be cuts both statewide and local," Snook said.

Munson said he doesn't support slot machines at this time because his constituents don't want them.

If slot machines were approved, he said they would generate $400 million to $500 million a year in revenue. At best, he estimated the state's deficit to be $1.5 million for fiscal year 2004.

Unless the economy picks up, Munson said he thinks taxes will increase sometime in the future. He also said he expects significant cuts to the 2004 budget.

"It's no fun when the state is broke and deeply in debt when you're a state legislator," Munson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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