- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is brainstorming strategies to force a House vote on his bid to legalize slot-machine gambling at horse tracks as the legislative session races toward an April 7 close.
Mr. Ehrlich's slots bill, a centerpiece of his budget plan, has been hung up in the House Ways and Means Committee for weeks. Today, that committee opens hearings on a competing slots bill passed by the Senate in a bipartisan 25- 21 vote Saturday.
The Senate plan is identical to the governor's in that the 10,500 slots machines are divided evenly among Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft racetracks. But it cut the share of revenue going to the tracks from the 43.6 percent offered by Mr. Ehrlich to 39 percent. The move increased the share of slots dollars earmarked for education from Mr. Ehrlich's 42.1 percent to 46 percent.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has been the governor's strongest ally on slots in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. But the competing slots and Mr. Miller's recent warming to tax proposals previously ruled out by the governor may reflect a new power struggle between the two politicians.
Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, has said the Senate bill will not bring slots to Maryland or any money to education because the track owners will not build multimillion-dollar slots casinos for only 39 percent of the take.
Regardless, Mr. Ehrlich has to find a way to get a slots bill to a vote in the House.
"There are a number of ways that are being explored by the administration to see how our slots legislation can reach the House floor," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.
They are considering rolling slots into a revenue bill during budget negotiations and sending it back to a House vote, although longtime legislators question the propriety of such a move. The administration could spur pro-slots lawmakers to petition the bill out of committee, but the bill would still be at the mercy of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the chief obstacle to expanded gambling this year.
It would take 47 House members to sign a petition to force the slots bill out of committee.
Last week, the House voted for a bill calling for a study of how the state would be affected by the legalization of slots, which some described as an indication of the chamber's opposition.
The Democrat-controlled House also passed a budget last week that did not include slots revenue to balance a $2 billion revenue shortfall in fiscal 2004, which begins July 1. The budget passed in a 94-45 vote, with Republican leaders voicing opposition to the changes made to the governor's proposal.
Members of the House Republican Caucus voted against the budget bill, which includes a 5-cent increase in the real-property tax backed by Mr. Ehrlich.
Mr. Ehrlich proposed a $165 million increase in the property tax and $85 million in higher business fees to help balance the budget in the face of declining state revenue. The House amended Mr. Ehrlich's bill to increase the business fees to bring in $225 million in new revenue during the next fiscal year.
Vaishali Honawar contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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