- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

Religious leaders across Maryland are preparing a massive assault on Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to legalize slot-machine gambling at horse tracks.
The religious lobby has proved powerful in the past, helping derail plans for casino gambling in the mid-1990s and keeping slots at bay for years. But this time, politicians, and even some church lobbyists, say Mr. Ehrlich is likely to prevail.
"It's an entirely different ballgame," Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said this week. "They know it might mean their parishioners' jobs."
Mr. Schaefer, a former Maryland governor, said anti-gambling forces are losing power because the state is in its worst budget crisis in a decade and slots have been successful in Delaware and West Virginia.
Installing thousands of state-regulated slot machines at four Maryland horse-racing tracks is key to Mr. Ehrlich's plan to close a $1.8 billion budget shortfall during the next 18 months. He said slots also will help cushion Maryland from future budget crunches and give the state as much as $800 million a year.
Mr. Ehrlich, the first Republican elected governor in Maryland since 1966, also thinks slots will save the state's beleaguered horse-racing industry and generate enough money to pay for K-12 education, as it has in neighboring states.
He continued to promote his slots agenda at a public budget meeting this week, saying limited legalized gambling would allow him to keep his pledge not to raise state income or sales taxes
"I'm the pro-slots candidate, and we won the election," he said.
Mr. Ehrlich, who thinks Maryland already crossed the line into legalized gambling with a state lottery, said religious opposition will not sway him. "If it is anything other than moral or religious [arguments], we'll talk," he said.
Even after meeting with United Methodist Bishop Felton May during the campaign, Mr. Ehrlich remained steadfast on slots. Mr. Ehrlich is a Methodist.
James T. Brady, who runs the day-to-day operations of the Ehrlich transition team, said talks about gaming with legislators are progressing and that slots will be a part of the budget package to be submitted to the General Assembly on Jan. 17.
"This is not simple," he said. "There are clear opponents, but we feel we can be successful."
Organizations representing the state's Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Southern Baptist and United Methodist churches, as well as Maryland's largest association of rabbis, are preparing for an aggressive anti-slots push.
The effort will include hiring lobbyists, grass-roots letter-writing, e-mail and phone campaigns, and anti-slots sermons from the pulpits.
"There will be a game plan," said David Lee, executive director of the Southern Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, which represents about 100,000 Southern Baptists in Maryland. "I'll be calling legislators, and I'd love to have an audience with Mr. Ehrlich.
"Gambling is not the quick-fix solution that will make all the [budget] evils go away. It preys on people who can least afford it, and slots are the worst culprit."
Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the state's largest rabbi group, said the group would begin lobbying in February through its affiliation with the Baltimore Jewish Council.
"Slots may raise a good amount of money, but the price they extract from the soul of the community is higher," Mr. Perlmeter said. The organization opposes all gambling to raise state revenue, he said.
The Lutheran Office of Public Policy will start lobbying lawmakers shortly after the General Assembly session opens Jan. 8, said Bishop H. Gerard Knoche of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"I'm not optimistic, of course, because people who wanted gambling elected this governor," he said.
The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the archdioceses of Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington, Del., also has little hope for defeating slots.
"It looks like the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion," said Dick Dowling, the group's executive director. "Only a very substantial popular uprising is going to stop it. Popular support and legislative support for slots has undergone a dynamic transformation in only a few months."
He attributed the shift to the budget crisis and to an "aggressive, persistent lobbying campaign by the racing industry and big-time gambling interests."
While many church leaders say they are not discouraged by the odds, other have abandoned the effort.
"Of all the issues out there, this isn't one that we've chosen to be active on," said Jim Naughton, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

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