- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Gambling opponents have not offered a viable alternative to legalizing slot machines in Maryland that would help close the anticipated $1.3 billion budget shortfall and spare painful cuts in state aid to local governments, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday.

"The one alternative we are hearing is to raise taxes, and that is clearly not one of the governor-elect's options," spokesman Henry Fawell said. "It should not be up to the taxpayer to shoulder the expenses of overzealous spending in the past by legislators."

Mr. Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor in 34 years, pledged not to cut local aid or raise state sales and income taxes.

But if the General Assembly does not legalize slots, which could generate $400 million in licensing fees the first year and earn the state $800 million annually, that could force the incoming governor to break his local-aid promise.

During his campaign, Mr. Ehrlich vowed to legalize slots, saying the state had crossed the line to legalized gambling with the state-run lottery. Slots, he said, would save the state's floundering racing industry, as well as help end the budget crisis.

Mr. Fawell said slot-machine revenue will be part of Mr. Ehrlich's first budget proposal, due two days after his inauguration Jan. 15. The budget will be accompanied by a bill to legalize slots, avoiding a referendum on the issue, which is popular among lawmakers but would delay action until the 2004 general election.

Mr. Ehrlich will be asking county officials to pressure their legislative delegations to support slots or face funding cuts for local police, road projects and community colleges in lieu of gambling revenue.

The push for support will be strongest in the three jurisdictions where slot machines would be introduced at horse-racing tracks: Baltimore city, and Prince George's and Allegany counties. Some legislators have said they will defer to the delegations whose areas are directly affected.

Some county officials are irked by the apparent ultimatum of supporting slots or losing local aid, but Mr. Fawell said that presenting the possible trade-off is not a threat.

"It's a very honest assessment of the state's fiscal situation," he said. "No one should react well to a possible reduction in local aid. The governor-elect doesn't want that, and local officials clearly don't want that. That's why he's committed to getting slots passed and solving the state's budget mess."

James J. Stakem, president of the Allegany County Commissioners, said he was not comfortable with the prospect of being "strong-armed" to support slots. But he said his county is particularly susceptible to the threat of losing state funds.

"Naturally, we don't want to lose state aid. We are a distressed county," said Mr. Stakem, whose county has suffered high unemployment and low income levels since smokestack industries abandoned the region. "We can't afford to lose any state aid right now with our situation."

In the conservative Eastern Shore county of Queen Anne's, Commissioners President Ben F. Cassell said the majority-Republican commission would readily comply with a request to pressure its legislative delegation. But he also balked at the threat of losing local aid.

"I don't think we would like being told that," Mr. Cassell said, adding that the county supports slots as long as it remains outside the county. "We understand the state's financial situation, but we have urgent funding needs."

Kevin Igoe, a Maryland Republican strategist, said Mr. Ehrlich had chosen an appropriate tactic to advance his agenda. He said Mr. Ehrlich, who made slots a cornerstone of his campaign for governor, is obliged to use every argument at his disposal.

"That's smart politics," Mr. Igoe said.

"If Mr. Ehrlich's slots proposal or something similar is not approved, it leaves a significant hole in the budget," he said. "Anybody who is against slots has got to come up with that money from somewhere. Just saying 'no' is simply not acceptable."

Mr. Ehrlich's slots proposal is expected to face stiff opposition in the General Assembly, despite the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat.

House Speaker-designate Michael E. Busch, Annapolis Democrat, remains a staunch opponent. He has called on Mr. Ehrlich to demonstrate unanimous Republican support for slots and stacked the committees that a slots bill must clear with anti-gambling Republicans.


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