- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. presented his case yesterday for legalizing slot machines at the first House hearing on the legislation, as busloads of people on both sides of the gambling issue crowded the State House.
Mr. Ehrlich told the House Ways and Means Committee that installing 10,500 slot machines at four horse tracks was the best option for closing the budget gap, increasing public school funding, saving the state's flagging horse-racing industry and stanching the flow of money to slots in neighboring states.
Maryland governors rarely testify at bill hearings, and the only time Gov. Parris N. Glendening testified at a hearing was during his prolonged but successful bid to list homosexuals as a class protected against discrimination.
Using an anticipated $395 million in slots licensing fees and gambling proceeds to reduce a $1.2 billion shortfall is key to Mr. Ehrlich's fiscal 2004 budget proposal.
The governor expects that slots eventually will generate $600 million to $800 million a year that will be earmarked for education.
"Without that revenue, the options are cuts specifically cuts that impact people and tax increases," Mr. Ehrlich told House lawmakers. "The people did not elect me or elect you to raise taxes when they know we have been living beyond our means."
The committee met in the large Joint Hearing Room to accommodate the overflow crowd, including many people who wanted to testify.
Among those supporting the governor's proposal were the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Farm Bureau and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
Those opposed to the bill included the Maryland League of Women Voters, the Laurel Clergy Association, the mayor and City Council of Ocean City, and the Maryland Restaurant Association.
About a dozen members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27 in Baltimore gathered in front of the State House to support the slots bill.
The Rev. Gregory Perkins, a Baltimore pastor and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, testified that the introduction of slots would promote crime, bankruptcy, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse, and the disintegration of families.
"We are here simply to say slot machines and casinos are bad for Maryland because it is bad policy for the state to encourage its most vulnerable citizens to engage in pathological behavior," Mr. Perkins said.
Mr. Ehrlich said that defeating the proposal would hurt public schools and provide a boon to neighboring states with slots, where about a third of the players are Marylanders.
"We are getting our brains beat out by Delaware, West Virginia and soon Pennsylvania," he said. "They are going to pass their [slots] bill, and we are going to be surrounded by slot machines."
Mr. Ehrlich's testimony was strongly worded but provided no details about how the bill would be reworked. The administration two weeks ago began amending the division of revenue, most likely reducing the amount of money for schools in favor of more profits for the tracks.
The final numbers were not ready for the hearing.
Mr. Ehrlich said the administration and a financial consultant had run the numbers 10 different ways and the figures would be ready in the "very short term."
"The splits need to work for everyone," he said.
Committee Chairman Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat, told the administration that it was running out of time.
"We go into negotiations on our bills the first of next week," she said. "If we don't have your numbers, we will be dealing with our own."
The original bill allotted the state 64 percent of net gambling proceeds and tracks 24 percent, a split that track owners complained did not provide them enough profit to offset the $100 million licensing fee and millions of dollars needed to build slot-machine palaces. The rest of the revenue from the slots would go to local governments and racing-related businesses.
Also at the hearing, Mr. Ehrlich accused House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a leading slots opponent, of injecting race into the debate by rallying black Baltimore ministers against the plan.
"It clearly is being done," Mr. Ehrlich said. "Racial considerations here is almost totally irrelevant."
Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, spoke two weeks ago to about 25 black ministers gathered at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Baltimore, telling them to energize their congregations to lobby legislators against the governor's slots bill.
Mr. Busch told the committee yesterday that the black ministers had invited him and that he had attended meetings on the slots issue with diverse groups of people.
"It was extremely hurtful of the executive of the state to accuse me" of engaging in racial politics, Mr. Busch said.


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