- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Democrats in the General Assembly have received a tepid response from religious leaders asked to help stop Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's plan to bring legalized slot machines to Maryland.
Led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a coalition of politicians and residents has lobbied black ministers in Baltimore to rally their congregations and to persuade state representatives to vote against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's proposal to install 13,500 slot machines in four Maryland racetracks.
The coalition also plans to attract statewide attention in March with Stop Slots Sermon Sunday, in which, they hope, many ministers will simultaneously deliver anti-slots sermons.
"For us to stop this legislation is an uphill battle. We are starting at the 10-yard line and we have to go all the way up the field," Mr. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat and former prep football star, told about 25 ministers at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Baltimore.
But just 25 of 80 black ministers invited to talk with Mr. Busch attended the meeting, and none of the 28 from Baltimore made the trip to Annapolis.
"I don't know what that is telling me," said Guy Rinfrow of Progressive Maryland, which arranged the meeting. "The religious community is everything as far as we are concerned."
Mr. Ehrlich made his proposal the centerpiece of his fiscal 2004 budget and thinks he has enough votes for his legislation to pass the General Assembly.
According to Mr. Ehrlich's proposal, the machines would generate $395 million to help close the state's $1.3 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes or forcing layoffs. The money also would be used to revitalize the state's flagging horse racing industry.
Mr. Ehrlich also estimates the proposal would generate $600 million in fiscal 2005. Most of the money is earmarked for public schools and to finance a previous mandate to standardize education spending throughout Maryland.
However, the Democrats, who control the General Assembly, say they have enough votes to kill the bill. This has prompted Mr. Ehrlich to say he will abandon the issue if the proposal fails this year.
The vote count is too close to predict an outcome, and Mr. Busch and veteran Annapolis lobbyist Minor Carter Jr. say the help of religious leaders will be crucial.
"It is easy to say no to a lobbyist," Mr. Minor recently told The Washington Times.
"It is more difficult to say no to an energized constituency, and we are going to organize the [church] constituency."
Even proponents of Mr. Ehrlich's proposal concede that religious leaders, especially from lawmakers' home churches, command attention.
"I've talked to a lot of legislators whose churches [have] weighed in with them and it has made a difference," said J. William Pitcher, a lobbyist for the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, which supports the governor's bill.
The Rev. C.E. Burston, pastor of Mr. Hattin Baptist Church in east Baltimore and president of the Maryland Baptist State Convention, said the ministers are ready, and legislators who ignore their message could pay during election time.
"They try to discount the church's power, but the churches do have power," Mr. Burston said.
"The congregation will turn against the legislators if they go against the church and against the perceived public interest. There's still power there."


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