- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

State lawmakers said yesterday that a House subcommittee has yet to schedule a debate on the Ehrlich administration’s proposal to improve public education with slot-machine revenue and that a final vote is likely weeks away.

“I won’t even begin to take a look at it until next week,” said Delegate Clarence “Tiger” Davis, Baltimore Democrat and House Finance and Resource subcommittee chairman.

If approved in the subcommittee, the bill will go to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Mr. Davis said Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has not yet scheduled a hearing.

Mrs. Hixson, Montgomery Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

The slot machine proposal, which was approved last week by the state Senate, has changed considerably since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, submitted the legislation last month.

Mr. Ehrlich’s original bill called for 11,500 slot machines at the Pimlico horse racing track in Baltimore, Laurel Racetrack in Anne Arundel County and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County, and a proposed track in Allegany County.

The bill passed the Senate last year but was defeated in the House Ways and Means Committee.

House Democrats, led by Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, opposed the legislation. This year, they have called for an increase in the sales tax of one cent on the dollar to pay for education.

Mr. Ehrlich’s new plan called for an additional 4,000 slots machines at two off-track sites along Interstate 95 — including one presumably in Prince George’s County near the National Harbor, a waterfront development under construction. But the Senate revised the plan so that 15,500 slot machines would go into six sites, with as many as four sites in Prince George’s County to generate $800 million for public schools.

The bill, if approved by the House of Delegates, would make the state the largest gambling destination on the East Coast outside Atlantic City.

The revision prompted Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, to distribute a letter Monday to the 23 delegates representing the county.

“Things are going great in Prince George’s County. … We don’t need to become the gambling mecca of the Washington metropolitan area,” Mr. Johnson wrote in the two-page letter.

The letter asked the delegates to exclude the county from the list of sites considered for slots emporiums, but it did not ask them to vote against the legislation. The letter also stated that sites in Allegany and Cecil counties, nearer to Charles Town and Dover Downs, would “make more sense.”

“There is no discussion of slots in those areas,” Mr. Johnson told The Washington Times. “So why is there discussion of slots in ours?

“Every conversation on gambling assumes a site for Prince George’s County,” he said. “There is no site in Howard, Montgomery or Anne Arundel. … I just think we should have the same option of opting out.”

The Prince George’s County Council has voted against slots, citing a study by the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable that stated each emporium would bring as many as 20,000 problem gamblers who would cost taxpayers $326 million. No public opposition to slots has been reported in Howard or Montgomery counties.

The Democrat-controlled House has voted to force Mr. Ehrlich to spend an additional $40 million this year toward the $1.3 billion Thornton Education Act.

Mr. Ehrlich wants to pay for the act, which would reduce the disparity between rich and poor public school districts, with the projected slots revenue.

An Ehrlich spokesman has said the governor has yet to decide whether to sign or veto the mandate if it passes the Senate.

Mr. Davis, one of the 42 members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, appeared to have secured minority ownership for some slots emporiums in exchange for support of Mr. Ehrlich’s bill.

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