- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. received support yesterday from a leading state Democrat when he formally addressed the Maryland Senate about his proposal for slot-machine gambling.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a longtime slots proponent who has become the governor's strongest ally in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, sat alongside Mr. Ehrlich and challenged the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to exhibit the leadership necessary to bring the governor's bill to the Senate floor.
"This committee is where the rubber meets the road," said Mr. Miller, Prince George's Democrat. "We expect you to lead and get the job done."
Mr. Miller also restated the administration's position that revenue from slot machines is the "best possible option" to keep the legislature's commitment to spread state money equally among public schools, an initiative known as the Thornton mandate.
Though the long-term projected revenue of $600 million will not completely fund the mandate, Mr. Miller said putting 10,500 slots in four racetracks would be a "major step" forward.
The bipartisan effort was in stark contrast to Tuesday's House hearing on the bill, during which Speaker Michael E. Busch brought in U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, to expound upon the social ills of slot-machine gambling.
A key component to Mr. Ehrlich's fiscal 2004 budget proposal is using an anticipated $395 million in slots-licensing fees and gambling proceeds to reduce a $1.2 billion shortfall.
Mr. Ehrlich still says slot-machine revenue is the best option for closing the shortfall, increasing public school funding, saving the state's flagging horse-racing industry and stanching the flow of money to slots in neighboring states.
However, at the Senate hearing yesterday, committee members questioned the governor extensively about the bill's missing details and the expected shortfalls in future budgets, regardless of slots revenue.
The Ehrlich administration has been reworking the bill by decreasing the amount of revenue to the state to give more to racetrack operators, who have complained that their original cut was too small to offset the $100 million up-front licensing fee and anticipated $200 million cost to build a slots palace.
In the original bill, presented Jan. 30, the revenue split gave 63.9 percent to the Education Trust Fund, 24.8 percent to the tracks, 5.8 percent to horse-race purses, 3 percent to local governments hosting the tracks, 1.4 percent to benefit horses bred and raced in Maryland, 0.8 percent to tracks without slots and $500,000 to gambling-addiction services.
Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday that the state's share, all of which would be earmarked for education, could be reduced to as low as 50 percent.
"It's a question of what numbers work," he told the committee. "If the numbers don't work, the whole thing falls down."
Mr. Ehrlich also said the revised splits would be ready "very soon."
Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery Democrat, questioned the governor about which steps he would take to repair the state's faulty budget structure, expected to leave a $700 million shortfall in fiscal 2005 even with the new slots revenue.
"It has to be a matter of full disclosure out there that this does not solve all the problems," he said. "After slots, what? Where do we go next?"
Mr. Ehrlich said the slots revenue would "go a long way" toward funding the Thornton mandate and that the larger budget problems would have to be addressed later by the administration and the legislature. The negotiations could start as soon as spring or summer.
"For the short term, we are where we are," Mr. Ehrlich said. "We have to deal with this situation."
The governor also was joined by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. They said the money from slots is necessary to improve education for disadvantaged students in poor school districts.
"Without this funding we cannot be hopeful about these children meeting the standards we have set for them," Mrs. Grasmick told the committee.

To help get through eight months of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Lawrence Silberman turned to pot.
"If I wasn't able to sleep or eat, I'd be dead," Mr. Silberman, 51, testified yesterday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "So the marijuana did help save my life."
Mr. Silberman, a Burtonsville contractor whose cancer is in remission, was among those speaking in support of a bill that would remove the threat of imprisonment for people who use marijuana for medical reasons.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paula Hollinger, Baltimore County Democrat, would set up a mechanism whereby patients, with approval of their doctors, could obtain cards from the state Board of Physician Quality Assurance certifying that they are using marijuana for health reasons.
Supporters believe compounds in marijuana smoke often relieve severe nausea suffered by some patients undergoing treatment for cancer and having trouble keeping down pills.
"For many people, marijuana is the only medicine with a suitable degree of safety or efficacy," Mrs. Hollinger said.
The patient would be allowed to grow seven marijuana plants, three of which may be mature, and possess one usable ounce of marijuana per mature plant.
The Board of Physician Quality Assurance, which is a part of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, opposes the bill, in part because it may conflict with federal law.
"If this measure passes in Maryland, the state must assume some liability for setting up an illegal framework that encourages individuals and the state to violate federal laws," said Carolyn W. Burns, vice president of Drug-Free Kids: America's Challenge.
A co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. David Brinkley, Frederick Republican, downplayed the concern of where the plants are obtained as secondary to helping people with severe diseases.
"The fact is, they're already doing it," he said. "Your people are doing this now."
Mr. Brinkley was treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1989. Although he did not use marijuana, he said the experience gave him perspective on the problems cancer patients face.
Last year, a bill in Maryland to drastically reduce penalties for possession of marijuana by those using it as medicine passed the House, but was killed in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, under a more conservative chairman who lost his re-election bid.
Mrs. Hollinger has 19 co-sponsors on the bill, so it already has almost enough votes to pass the 47-member Senate. An identical measure has 56 co-sponsors in the House.
"The administration has not taken a position on this particular bill, but Governor Ehrlich supports the concept of legalizing medical marijuana," his spokeswoman said.

Motorists who fill up their cars with gasoline and drive away without paying could have their driver's licenses revoked under a bill pending in the state Senate.
Under the proposal, the Motor Vehicle Administration could suspend a person's driver's license for up to one month after a first conviction for stealing gas. The 30-day suspension would be mandatory after a second conviction.
Supporters say that the number of drive-offs has been increasing as the price of gas has gone up. They say revoking someone's license is a more effective deterrent than penalties for theft.
But opponents say that taking away licenses is only appropriate for driving violations.
The Senate could vote on the measure as early as tomorrow. The bill has already passed in the House.

Fast drivers could have clearer sailing on state highways if legislation approved yesterday by the House becomes law.
If adopted, slower drivers will have to move to the right as soon as it is safe to do so to allow faster traffic to get by.
The bill cleared the House on a 90-49 roll call and now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Opponents say the proposal encourages speeding because drivers would have to yield even if the vehicle trying to pass them was exceeding the speed limit.
But supporters say the bill will discourage cases of road rage by drivers angered that a car ahead of them is slowing them down.

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