- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

ANNAPOLIS The Ehrlich administration began reworking its slot-machine legislation yesterday following outcry by horse racing officials and other critics who say the state is hoarding the profits.
"The administration is working with various elements of the industry to ensure that the allocation of slots revenue is reasonable, but we are not pulling the bill under any circumstances," said Henry Fawell, spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
He also said it was not a "foregone conclusion" that the numbers would be changed.
Mr. Ehrlich's legislative staff met with the House Ways and Means Committee that will hear the bill first.
Delegate Justin D. Ross, a committee member, said the staffers told him they were "retooling the numbers" to most likely redivide the revenue among track owners, the state's horse racing industry and public education funding.
"They came to tell us that they were working hard and would be coming back to us with something very shortly," said Mr. Ross, Prince George's Democrat.
Racetrack operators have balked at paying a $100 million licensing fee and as much as $200 million to build palaces just to earn 25 percent of the revenues.
The other dissatisfied groups are the governments hosting the tracks, which get just 3 percent, and horse-breeding associations that would get 1.4 percent to increase an incentive fund for Maryland-bred horses running in Maryland races.
About 64 percent of the profits went to public education in Mr. Ehrlich's original bill, which is the centerpiece of his fiscal 2004 budget.
The bill would generate $395 million in revenue and licensing fees to help him close a $1.3 billion budget deficit without raising taxes or forcing layoffs.
Though a majority of Republican lawmakers support the bill, Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday he has enough votes from Democrats in the House and Senate.
Still, a number of Democratic lawmakers oppose the bill and have joined a coalition of anti-slots groups.
"It's a very, very vigorous battle that is going to be fought until the last day of the session," said Delegate Peter Franchot, Montgomery County Democrat, who joined five other party members at a news conference to debut StopSlots-Maryland.com.
The group is lead by veteran Annapolis lobbyist Minor Carter and includes religious groups, business associations, civic organizations and anti-gambling advocates.
The members include the Ministerial Alliance, the Maryland Interfaith Legislative Committee, the United Methodist Church, the Presbytery of Baltimore, the Episcopal Diocese, the Lutheran Church, the Muslim American Society, the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, the Maryland Restaurant Association, the League of Women Voters, Progressive Maryland and NocasiNo Maryland.
Other Democrats appearing beside Mr. Carter were Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's County; House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County; Delegate Curt Anderson, Baltimore; Delegate William A. Bronrott, MontgomeryCounty; and Delegate Shane E. Pendergrass, Howard County.
Mr. Anderson said that Democrats joining forces with the anti-slots lobby was not a partisan move.
"We are not here to block the governor," he said. "This is something that [Mr. Ehrlich] campaigned on and it is a priority for the governor, but we have to be responsible to the people of Maryland."
Mr. Anderson also said he was concerned about the effect of a large slot-machine casino on Pimlico, one of the four tracks to get slots and that is surrounded mostly by blacks and is in an economically depressed area.
Mr. Franchot has been at the forefront of the opposition to Mr. Ehrlich's bill and has introduced a bill to impose a yearlong moratorium on the legislation. He has 71 Democratic co-sponsors, a House majority. Mr. Franchot had said the bill was a symbolic show of Democratic opposition, but yesterday seemed more confident that slots could be stopped this year.
Mr. Franchot, who previously co-sponsored a bill to legalize slots, said he is not opposed to gambling but thinks the governor is moving too fast.
He also said the moratorium would give the legislature time to organize a blue-ribbon commission to study the effect of slot machines on the communities surrounding the tracks Pimlico in Baltimore, Laurel in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft in Prince George's County and Little Orleans, a track planned near Cumberland.
Mr. Ehrlich has vowed to abandon slots for the remainder of his term if it doesn't pass this year.
"I put that in the same category as him saying he has the votes," Mr. Franchot said.
Mr. Anderson was more blunt. "This is a two-party system," he said. "If he is daring us, then I guess we have to respond."

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