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Proponents of slots back revised plan

March 07, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County lawmakers who favor legalizing slot machines defended a revised plan that would double the amount of money going to racetracks and reduce the amount going to public schools.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich had to mend his original slots proposal because track owners would not have earned enough money to make the venture worthwhile, said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

"The initial proposal was a pie in the sky proposal. It really wasn't relevant," Munson said.

Track owners will get an estimated $655 million for operating expenses and profits. The share going to public schools would be reduced from $800 million to $642 million.

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The legislature most likely will rework the proposal to make it more favorable, Munson said.

"For every dollar we don't get out of slots, we're probably going to have to get out of taxes, because I don't know where to get it," he said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said Maryland's share of the profits under Ehrlich's plan would be higher than other states with slot machine gambling.

Maryland would receive about 42 percent of the revenue, compared to Delaware's 36 percent cut and West Virginia's 38.5 percent, according to a report by the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

A total of 10,500 slot machines would be legal at three of the state's racetracks - Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft.

A proposed track in Allegany County would be allowed to operate 1,000 machines. Its owner would not have to pay a licensing fee until six months before it opened.

Owners of the other three tracks each will have to pay $40 million licensing fees, down from $100 million. However, they will be required to spend $100 million on slots facilities.

Ehrlich had been counting on the higher licensing fees to balance his budget; without them there is a $230 million hole in the budget. Munson said that likely will lead to more budget cuts.

"We're going to see some of the bone hacked into. We're going to see very popular programs cut," he said.

Ehrlich's new plan did not change the minds of local slots opponents.

"I think it's all the more reason the issue should be taken to referendum," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Even with legalizing slots, the state is going to have to raise other fees or taxes to pay its bills, which include an ambitious education funding plan known as the Thornton Commission plan.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said the changes do not address his concerns about slots, which is the impact on families.

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