Slots could be session's hot topic

January 11, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

A showdown over slot machines once again could dominate the Maryland General Assembly's 2004 session, which begins Wednesday.

Last year, the Senate voted to legalize slot machines, but the legislation stalled in the House.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich plans to introduce another slots bill during the upcoming 90-day session, his spokesman Henry Fawell said.

It remains to be seen whether he and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has opposed slots, will forge a compromise over the details, lawmakers said.

"The confusion is still out there over what to do about slots," said Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Allegany/Washington, a gambling opponent.


Even slots backer Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, puts the chance of a slots bill passing at 50 percent.

The House Ways and Means Committee studied the issue over the summer, but there still is no consensus on how to proceed, Myers said.

Ehrlich won't introduce legislation if he thinks it will be killed, Fawell said.

Slots are crucial to Ehrlich's budget, both this year and in the future, as scheduled increases for public school education take effect under the so-called Thornton funding formula, he said.

Ehrlich wants to use slots to help close an $800 million budget gap for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

"Right now, the governor is the only person in town with a plan to balance the budget and pay for Thornton," Fawell said.

Washington County lawmakers said their top priority will be to make sure the fiscal budget contains $1.8 million to operate the new University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center.

The first step will be for Ehrlich to include the money in his budget. Then it must survive budget cuts by the legislature.

The Washington County Commissioners have given state lawmakers a modest agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

The commissioners have asked for the authority to assess a flat tax of $10 on each improved real estate account in the county to raise money for agricultural land preservation.

But there is little support for the proposal among lawmakers in the delegation.

Lawmakers said last year's Growth Management Act, which allowed the county to charge new excise and transfer taxes, should have solved the county's fiscal woes.

"To come along and add another $10 to people's property tax, I'm not sure it's going to sail," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Delegation Chairman Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said other counties in the state have paid for farmland preservation with general fund money.

Another contentious local issue lawmakers will face this session involves PenMar Development Corp., the state-created entity overseeing redevelopment of the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base.

The commissioners have said they may ask for legislation allowing them to remove the agency's board members at will.

Shank, who has called the board "dysfunctional," said lawmakers also could decide to pursue legislation without the backing of the commissioners.

PenMar board members said last month they have worked through their problems and are on the right track toward redeveloping the Cascade property. They urged lawmakers to make no changes to the board's structure.

McKee said he was considering filing his own legislation to give the commissioners the authority to create a fire tax.

The Washington County Fire and Rescue Association asked for the taxing authority, but the commissioners turned them down, saying there are too many unanswered questions about how the tax would be structured.

Some noncontroversial local bills call for:

  • Adding a second deputy state's attorney position for the county and eliminating one of the current assistant positions.

  • Giving the commissioners the authority to borrow $50 million over the next four years for various capital improvement projects.

Statewide, Ehrlich will seek tort reform along with several environmental initiatives, Fawell said.

Shank said he will support tort reform when it comes to the Judiciary Committee, but he expects a fight from the trial attorneys who oppose caps on damage awards.

Doctors support tort reform to curb rising medical malpractice premiums, Shank said.

Individually, legislators expect to deal with various statewide issues depending on their committee assignments.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said there will be an attempt to privatize the state's emergency Medevac helicopter system, which is run by Maryland State Police.

As chairman of a subcommittee studying the issue, Donoghue said he'll resist that effort.

The Health and Government Operations Committee on which Donoghue serves also will deal with health insurance issues.

His committee will look at how the new federal prescription drug program will affect state programs and will review proposed changes to health insurance laws in order to reduce the number of uninsured people in the state, he said.

The Ways and Means Committee, on which McKee and Myers sit, will deal with any slots legislation.

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