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Stage is set for slots

January 13, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich set the stage for the battle over slot machines last week in a friendly but firm message to his counterparts in the Republican Caucus.

Ehrlich sat before the group and acknowledged there will be times when they disagree with his administration's positions.

"If it's moral or religious, there's no discussion. It's understood and that's the end of the discussion," he said.

But if it's anything else, he said he wants a chance to talk to them privately.

"We only ask if you take a public position against us, let us know," Ehrlich said.

When Ehrlich unveils his first budget as governor later this week, it is expected to balance with the help of $400 million to $500 million in revenue from legalizing slot machines at racetracks.

Ehrlich demanded no cuts to local aid, no cuts to education and no layoffs, said Minority Leader Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Eastern Shore, who helped craft the document.

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If the legislature doesn't approve slot machines at racetracks, it will be forced to make further budget cuts or raise taxes.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's/Calvert, supports slot machines, but he said he would not ask anyone to vote for them.

"I think slots are a necessary evil," he told members of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce last week.

Ehrlich's biggest roadblock to slots is House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who is concerned that the machines will not improve racing and will end up harming poorer communities in the state.

Busch said before he considers slots he expects Republicans to line up behind Ehrlich's slot machine proposal, the details of which have not been made public.

There is little support for slots among the majority-Republican Washington County Delegation.

Only two of the eight members, Del. Robert A. McKee and Del. Richard Weldon, are leaning toward the idea.

"It's certainly a better idea than raising taxes," said Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington.

McKee, R-Washington, said he doesn't think it will hurt the county's tip jar gambling revenue, which benefits local charities. Slots at the racetrack in nearby Charles Town, W.Va., have not seemed to curb tip jar playing, he said.

McKee and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Allegany/Washington, will play a large role in the debate because they are on the Ways and Means Committee that will review the legislation.

Myers said he opposes slot machines for moral reasons. He said he believes gambling destroys families.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who will review the legislation as a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, is undecided. While he has long been opposed to slot machines, he sees there will be enormous pressure to approve them or risk painful budget cuts.

"I would consider slots if the alternatives are worse," he said. He cited raising income or sales taxes as less desirable alternatives.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, is also undecided although he does not like the idea of relying on gambling revenue.

"I want to see what the alternatives are," he said.

Shank said he plans to talk with Ehrlich about his concerns.

"I took his words very seriously," Shank said.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Allegany/Washington, are leaning against slot machines but have not ruled them out.

"If I had to vote today, I'd vote no," Mooney said.

The delegation's lone Democrat is reserving judgment until he sees a proposal.

"I'm going to watch these guys," Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, said of the Republicans. "I'm going see what they do."

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