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Ehrlich asks for slots

February 12, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

As he did a year ago, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich went before state lawmakers Wednesday and begged them to approve slot machines to raise money for education.

"Here we are again. 'Groundhog Day,'" Ehrlich said, referring to the movie in which Bill Murray is doomed to repeat the same day over and over. "The same place, the same issue, the same committee."

And once again, slots opponents railed about the social costs of expanded gambling.

Ehrlich told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee that slots would go a long way toward solving the state's money woes and would help the horse racing industry and stem the flow of gambling money to neighboring states.

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Ehrlich's slots proposal calls for 11,500 machines at four racetracks, including one to be built near the Washington County border in Allegany County.

It also calls for two stand-alone slots emporiums to be located at unidentified locations in the state. Each one of those would have 2,000 machines.

By 2008, the administration predicts profits from slots would be about $900 million, which is 70 percent of the $1.3 billion boost prescribed for education by the Thornton Commission.

But budget analysts with the Department of Legislative Services estimate slots would raise $700 million. They also predict a 15 percent drop in lottery proceeds as gamblers gravitate toward slots instead of lottery.

It's rare for a governor to testify on a bill. Ehrlich was asked to appear before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

Miller has said he believes the bill will pass the Senate, but its fate in the House of Delegates is less certain.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, worked to defeat the bill last year.

Ehrlich said his proposal for two stand-alone slots parlors was a concession to Busch, who has argued the state would receive more profits and have more control over slots that way.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer also testified in support of the bill to head off future cuts in state services.

"I take the tack as a taxpayer I'm tired of this budget question. It must be solved and it must be solved this year," he said. "You can't carry $1 billion deficits year after year. This is the year the budget must be balanced."

Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland, argued that the administration is not considering the social costs of increased addiction.

She told a story about a woman whose addiction led her to embezzle money and then commit suicide.

"I don't want it to be anyone in my family. Do you want it to be anyone in your family?" she said. "Look at the dark side of gambling. No amount of money that will come to this state will be worth it."

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