- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Asserting that key opposition seems to be eroding, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he will actively participate in developing a slot-machine gambling plan for Maryland, rather than leaving the task to the General Assembly.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, has changed the position he held at the close of the assembly session this year, when he said he would spend no more of his political energy trying to persuade the Democrats leading the House of Delegates to adopt his gambling plan.

Mr. Ehrlich said with House Speaker Michael E. Busch discussing building state-owned slots facilities on public land at the state fairgrounds in Timonium and elsewhere, opinion has shifted enough for him to get involved again.

“This is the first public pronouncement from the speaker. We took that as a very positive step,” Mr. Ehrlich said in an interview Thursday with the Baltimore Sun.

“It meets the test we put out in March,” he said, referring to his assertion that he would not return with legislation unless Mr. Busch altered his views. Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, played a leading role in killing Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal to install slot machines at Maryland racetracks.

Critics said the governor’s proposal gave too much money to track owners and failed to account for social costs and expenses for roads and other improvements that huge slots palaces would incur.

Instead, the House Ways and Means Committee has embarked on yet another study of expanded gambling, an issue that continues to attract supporters as Maryland faces growing bills for public education and health care.

With Mr. Busch exploring slot machine options, Mr. Ehrlich said he has authorized his aides to begin discussions on a new plan.

“At the staff level, informal talks have begun,” Mr. Ehrlich said, refusing to disclose details of whether slots facilities at locations away from tracks were acceptable to him. “The real negotiations will not occur in public.”

The governor said he would like to reach an agreement with legislative leaders on a legalized gambling initiative before January, when the assembly convenes for its annual 90-day session. “Hopefully, we could come to ‘yes’ before the session,” he said.

Mr. Busch said Thursday that he remains unconvinced that permitting slot machine gambling is sound public policy but that he wants his delegates armed with enough information and alternatives to make wise decisions.

The public ownership idea — with the Maryland Stadium Authority building slots bars containing machines monitored by the Maryland lottery — appears to offer the greatest return to taxpayers, he said.

“If, in fact, you like the idea of expanded gambling, the direction we are going in puts the state in a better position,” Mr. Busch said. “It still has to be the governor’s initiative. He’s the one that wants expanded gambling in the state of Maryland.”

In a related matter, a poll released last week indicates that sentiment in Maryland is turning in favor of slot-machine gambling, with a majority of voters in support of putting slots at racetracks.

Fifty-seven percent of voters questioned in a poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies Inc. said they favor allowing slots at racetracks, up from 47 percent in a March poll conducted by the Annapolis-based firm. In the new poll, slot machines were opposed by 31 percent, and 12 percent were undecided.

The poll of 829 registered voters was conducted Aug. 13 through Aug. 20. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

“The margin of dead-even in March has now turned into a 25-point margin in favor,” said Patrick Gonzales, president of the company. “This is, statistically, highly significant movement.”

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