- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

The Ehrlich administration says it will try to legalize slot-machine gambling for the third consecutive year, this time with a flexible plan to blunt Democratic opposition.

“As always, this bill is a starting point for negotiations,” said Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. “Hopefully, the third time will be the charm.”

The administration plan in almost identical to the one last year —15,500 slot machines at four Maryland horse tracks and two other sites that would generate about $800 million a year.

However, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, has earmarked $100 million of the proposed profits for much-needed school construction, which could persuade Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly to approve the legislation.

He emphasized the point and made a subtle pitch for his plan Wednesday at a Board of Public Works meeting, at which school officials typically clamor for additional state funding.

“Should a slots bill be passed, there will be another $100 million a year for school construction,” Mr. Ehrlich repeated several times throughout the day.

The governor’s plan also calls for an additional $50 million for counties with higher costs for education, including Montgomery County where there is strong opposition to slot machines, especially in the House.

The governor’s previous plans simply designated $1.3 billion for the horse-racing industry and the Thornton Education Act.

Mr. Ehrlich must find a way to win votes for his slots legislation.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, has supported the governor on slots, despite opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, who stifled the legislation the past two years in the House Ways and Means Committee.

However, Mr. Miller recently dealt Mr. Ehrlich a blow when he failed to support the governor’s legislation to fix the medical malpractice insurance crisis.

The administration sounded less than optimistic this week about the possibility of slots passing, despite the changes.

“We don’t have any indication the speaker has changed his position from the last legislative session,” Miss DeLeaver said.

Mr. Busch did not return calls seeking comment.

Officially, no slots legislation has been submitted to the assembly, but Mr. Miller was the first to say he would present a plan, and Mr. Ehrlich was quick to give up the spotlight.

“It was a very smart political thing for him to do,” Mr. Miller said.

Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, both Democrats, are opposed to any slots legislation linked to school funding, though such a plan would help their school districts.

Mr. Ehrlich must also win support from black ministers and lawmakers, who played key roles last year in the negotiations to pass slot-machine legislation.

He has attempted to win support from the lawmakers by including minority ownership in his plan but likely will face opposition again from the church leaders.

Among their concerns are that gambling is really a tax on the poor and that lawmakers should devote their time to concerns such as education, health care and transportation.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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