Slots bill is tied to schools

February 06, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich is gambling that the third time will be the charm.

A Senate committee will consider Ehrlich's proposal to legalize slot machine gambling during a hearing Wednesday afternoon - the third slots proposal of his administration.

This one differs from his failed previous bills, however, in that it ties proceeds from the gaming bill directly to one of the state's most coveted commodities: money for school construction.

Ehrlich has been talking slots at every opportunity, telling school officials begging for a share of the $157 million in his capital budget for construction projects that legalizing slots would put an additional $100 million per year on the table for school construction.


A state task force studying school construction needs throughout Maryland has said it would take $250 million per year for nearly a decade just to catch up with current demands. In releasing his capital budget proposal last month, Ehrlich told reporters that "not everything's tied into slots," but added, "almost everything." He challenged lawmakers to move the issue forward.

"If the General Assembly is serious" about meeting commitments to education, "they will pass a slots bill," he said.

The one place he doesn't plan to talk about slots, however, is at Wednesday's hearing, Press Secretary Shareese Deleaver said.

Ehrlich has no plans to personally testify, she said.

"The bill has died in committee two years in a row," Deleaver said. "The governor has a realistic view of this bill. He has no heightened expectations."

Anybody's game?

"Every year at about this time, I feel optimistic," Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said this week. A slots proponent himself, Shank has encouraged support for Ehrlich's bill.

"Then every year, about three-fourths of the way through the (General Assembly) session, I find the Speaker has found some way to obstruct it," Shank said.

There's a suspicion among House Republicans that House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has found ways to block legalization of slots as a political maneuver to hurt Ehrlich's chances of re-election in 2006. Ehrlich touted slots during his 2002 campaign and has failed to deliver.

"I see it from a different perspective, being a solid 'no,'" said Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, who always has opposed legalizing slots on moral grounds. "Mike Busch has been at best wishy-washy" on slots, Myers said. "He's been very political with his 2006 election campaign.

"But the Democrats in leadership need to make a decision on how and if there's going to be more legislation this year - you won't get it in an election year."

But slots isn't simply a Republican issue. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller supports slots, and a bill did pass in the Senate last year. It was held up until the last day in the House, however, and ultimately died - a casualty Republicans blame on Busch.

"It boils down to one person," House Minority Leader George Edwards said. "If Mike Busch wants it to pass, it'll pass. If he doesn't, it won't."

For his part, Busch hasn't ruled out chances of getting a slots bill through this year - at least not officially.

"Every new year's a new year," Busch said Thursday. "It will go through the process." But he said that since last year, Ehrlich hadn't been meeting with Assembly leaders to work out a deal on slots.

Ehrlich did meet with Busch and Miller on Labor Day weekend on slots, however, but an apparent deal that would have resulted in a special session of the General Assembly to vote on a slots bill fell through.

Busch noted that members of the House Ways and Means Committee, including two from Washington County, had voted unanimously against the Senate bill passed last year, which prevented the bill from getting to the floor for a full House vote.

"Why'd they vote against it last year?" he asked.

Stacking the deck

It was politics that killed the bill last year, said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

A member of the Ways and Means Committee, McKee supports slots - and said committee Chairman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, supports slots, too. But Hixson owes her chairmanship to Busch, he noted, and could lose it if she supported a slots bill.

Although McKee supported Ehrlich's original bill last year, he voted against the bill as the Senate ultimately approved it. He said then the bill didn't do enough to support the horse racing industry.

The bill Ehrlich has submitted this year would allow 3,500 machines each at Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks, 1,000 at a proposed Allegany County track and 4,000 machines at off-track locations.

Right now, McKee said, "the horse racing industry is hurting bad as a result of slots in Delaware and West Virginia."

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