- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Legislation that would allow slot machines at Maryland racetracks gained ground this year when the General Assembly approved a billion-dollar increase in education funding without settling on how to pay for it.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said yesterday that he believes Maryland will have to permit slot machines to stay competitive with neighboring states and that tying the state's take from slots to education will ensure its approval.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's opposition to more gambling is no longer a barrier, because the term-limited incumbent will leave office in January.

And leading Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have staked out opposite positions on the issue.

U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Baltimore County Republican, advocates legalizing slots at tracks as the "only way" to help Maryland's hobbling horse-racing industry. Mr. Ehrlich has said he would push to dedicate all state revenue from slots to education.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, said yesterday that slots are not where she would want to look to fund education.

"Slots do more harm than good," Mrs. Townsend said, adding that slot machines "hurt small business, promote street crime, and addiction goes up."

Mrs. Townsend said it's too early to talk about increasing taxes because she expects and hopes an upturn in the economy will increase revenues.

But Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has been a leading sponsor for five years of a proposal to legalize slots. He said Mr. Ehrlich's position puts "additional pressure" on Mrs. Townsend.

Mr. Rawlings said he expects a recently commissioned report examining funding sources for state government to recommend that the legislature consider slot machines as part of the picture.

Even so, winning approval for "slots at tracks will be a close vote and a tough sell," said Mr. Miller, Prince George's County Democrat.

Mr. Miller is among many lawmakers who can remember when, more than three decades ago, slot machines were scattered around the state. He said he believes that, if elected governor, Mrs. Townsend will drop her resistance to slots and allow a measure to pass without her signature, as former Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper did.

Most legislators have never had to cast a vote on the slots issue because, until a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means voted against the proposal this year, it had not even received a committee vote.

Nonetheless, nearly unanimous opposition from legislators who represent Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties and cast about a third of the votes in each chamber could make clearing the House and Senate difficult.

All incumbents from delegate to governor are up for election this year. That fact alone ensures that the racing industry and its advocates will make slots a front-burner issue in the Sept. 10 primary and Nov. 5 general election.

No candidate will be able to avoid answering the slots question, and many will find it hard to insulate themselves from voter reaction to their response.

With anti-gambling sentiment high in vote-rich Montgomery County, tying slot revenues to education may well be the only way to win any Montgomery County lawmakers' votes.

Mr. Ehrlich, a centrist whom Republican leaders have touted as their best chance to elect a governor in more than three decades, is taking a gamble with his pro-slots stance.

The congressman has relied on the votes of crossover Democrats, which he will need to be elected governor in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.

Mr. Ehrlich will need Republicans, too, and he could lose some conservatives who oppose gambling, not to Mrs. Townsend, but to disaffection that could keep them from going to the polls.

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