- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

BALTIMORE Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday there is a chance that his failed bid to legalize slot-machine gambling at horse-racing tracks could be resurrected in a special session of the General Assembly.

"I'm holding out hope, but I'm not counting on it by any means," said Mr. Ehrlich, whose plan to reap budget-balancing revenue from slots was killed in a House committee in the final days of the regular 90-day legislative session this month.

The Republican governor said some preliminary negotiations to revive slots are already under way. But the administration would have to see movement in the position of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the chief architect of the slots bill's demise, before a special session was convened, he said.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mr. Ehrlich said the House Democratic leaders who killed his slots bill may be reconsidering their position as they face their constituents with little more than ominous budget news. "Maybe the dynamic has changed a little bit as the legislators go back to their districts," he said.

Mr. Ehrlich said he may order a special session for legislators to balance the $22.4 billion budget after he vetoes $137 million in new corporate taxes adopted by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. That could provide an opportunity to add slot dollars to the budget and put his slots plan to a vote.

"Quite frankly, we are going to veto the tax bill and go from there," Mr. Ehrlich said in a speech to the Greater Baltimore Economic Forum at yesterday's luncheon at the Baltimore Country Club.

The governor does not need to reconvene the legislature to balance the budget. The spending cuts can be made by the Board of Public Works, which consists of Mr. Ehrlich and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, both Democrats.

Mr. Ehrlich is not expected to call a special session unless slots appear to be making a comeback. He said a deal on slots would have to be struck before calling lawmakers back to Annapolis.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said the governor shouldn't hold out too much hope for a special session on slots.

"Nobody in the General Assembly is going to want to sit around for two weeks while we debate the intricacies of the slots legislation," said Mr. Barve, Montgomery Democrat. He said he was sure Mr. Busch shared his view.

Mr. Barve said slots would be studied over the summer, and the House would pursue the issue next year if a majority of delegates support expanding gambling in Maryland. "That will be a long debate, not something we want to do in a special session," he said.

Mr. Ehrlich hoped to put 10,500 slot machines at the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft horse tracks, and later add 1,000 slot machines at a planned track near Cumberland. The state's share of gambling proceeds would top $700 million a year, all of it going to public schools, according to the administration.

Without slot dollars, Maryland faces an estimated $3.3 billion budget shortfall over the next three years. And massive spending cuts in state aid to local governments, higher education and Medicaid are expected since the governor has ruled out major tax increases.

If his slots plan cannot be salvaged in a special session, Mr. Ehrlich has said he will not actively pursue the issue next year. It would be up to House Democratic leaders to propose slots legislation.

The Senate has already approved the slots bill. But Mr. Busch managed to kill the plan in committee and deny a vote by the full House. Mr. Ehrlich, who made slots the centerpiece of his budget plan, said repeatedly he had enough support in the House to pass the legislation if the delegates had the chance to vote.

Mr. Ehrlich also has insisted that about 70 percent of Marylanders want slot-machine gambling at horse tracks rather than pay higher taxes or face deep cuts to government programs and services. "A 70 percent issue should mean at least it gets voted on," he said.

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