- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he recognizes the moral objections to slot machines and gambling, but adds that Maryland and other states already are generating revenue with legalized gambling via state-run lotteries and Keno games.

"I understand the religious and moral problem with gambling. But to say Keno is fine and slots at the tracks are not, or that scratch-offs for stadiums is great but slots for education is not I think that is a bizarre type of argument," the Republican nominee for Maryland governor said yesterday.

In a wide-ranging meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Ehrlich also said he would commission a study for a new Potomac River crossing, lift the state's moratorium on the death penalty and implement a hands-off policy with regard to abortion laws.

Installing slot machines at horse-racing tracks figures prominently in Mr. Ehrlich's budget plans, which estimate that slots eventually would generate as much as $800 million a year, with $220 million earmarked for schools and health care. Slot machines also would save the state's struggling horse-racing industry, he said.

The Baltimore County congressman downplayed criticism that gambling exploits weak-willed or addictive personalities, saying that lotteries not horse racing pose a more serious threat to such personalities. He added that his slot-machine measure includes funding for gambling-addiction treatment.

One-third to one-half of the money going into slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia come from Marylanders, he said, adding that the money would be better spent at home. However, he said he opposes casino gambling.

Mr. Ehrlich defended his proposed budget framework, which relies on 5 percent across-the-board efficiency savings to make up the state's anticipated $1.7 billion budget shortfall. He said major savings would be realized via streamlining government, adding that his budget estimates are "extremely conservative" and describing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration as excessive.

"This government grew 60 percent over eight years. Per capita income grew 40 percent. That is a Parris gap. That is a credibility gap, and that's why you don't look to [raising] taxes first or second or third," he said.

Mr. Ehrlich and Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor, have expressed support for an Intercounty Connector that would join major thoroughfares in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Yesterday, he said the ICC would be "priority one" in his administration.

"Mrs. Townsend's comment that she will only support it in an environmentally friendly way is a code word. We all know that. It's code to the environmentalists that she is not serious about building the road," he said.

Montgomery County voters care more about a new Potomac River crossing than building the ICC, based on his campaign's polls, he said, adding that he would initiate a study on additional northern routes over the Potomac.

To fund highway initiatives, Mr. Ehrlich proposed overhauling the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for highway construction, road maintenance and mass transit.

"The issue in Maryland is underfunding the Transportation Trust Fund," he said. "I think we are one of the few states in the country that combines mass transit and roads in the same trust fund."

Mr. Ehrlich said he would like to separate the two and find a "permanent, secure funding stream" for the fund. He said he would support the proposal by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany County Democrat, that would divert a half-cent of each dollar of the sales tax to the fund, netting significantly more revenue than the estimated $100 million expected from a gas-tax increase.

He reaffirmed his commitment not to increase taxes, although he has left the door open for a gas-tax increase. "I am not going to support a sales-tax increase," he said.

Mr. Ehrlich, considered a centrist on abortion, characterized himself as a conservative on economic and defense issues and a libertarian on social issues.

Maryland spends more than $2 million a year on state-funded Medicaid abortions as much as four times as what neighboring states like Virginia spend every year but Mr. Ehrlich said he would not consider rolling back that law if he becomes governor.

He said pro-choice and pro-life advocates had reached a compromise in Maryland and "I am going to respect that compromise as far as funding is concerned."

Mr. Ehrlich said he would, however, support a state ban on partial-birth abortions.

He said he is not concerned that his stance on abortion would alienate the Republican base in Maryland. "I believe the majority of Marylanders, both pro-life and pro-choice, fall more toward my views than Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's," he said.

Mr. Ehrlich said his support is strong among Maryland conservatives. He said he is pulling ahead of his opponent in fund raising and expects to surpass his goal of $8 million.

"Our fund raising has been the most incredible aspect of the race," said Mr. Ehrlich, who started his campaign with $4.5 million less than Mrs. Townsend.

He said he is raising as much as $75,000 a day, 19 days before the election. "We expect to actually out-fund-raise a sitting lieutenant governor with the Kennedy name," he said.

Polls show the candidates in a statistical dead heat.

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