- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — As the state House Ways and Means Committee prepares for yet another study of slot machines, one thing seems certain: Legislators are in for another expensive battle about gambling when they return to Annapolis for the 2004 General Assembly session.

With the economy in the doldrums and state revenues stagnant, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. are promoting slot machines as the best way to raise as much as $700 million a year, which would go a long way toward solving Maryland’s fiscal problems.

The governor frequently tells audiences in his travels around the state that legalizing slots at racetracks is a “no-brainer.”

But Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Miller don’t want to wait until January to tackle the gambling issue. They would like the General Assembly to convene in a special session this summer or fall just to work on slot machines.

However, that would require the concurrence of the third major player in the slots battle, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who was primarily responsible for killing Mr. Ehrlich’s slots bill during the 2003 session, which ended in April. Mr. Busch has said no to a special session, and his Ways and Means Committee has laid out a leisurely schedule that guarantees that it will not complete its study of gambling until late this year.

With Mr. Miller and Mr. Ehrlich firmly on the side of gambling proponents, Mr. Busch’s position will be key to chances of legalizing slots next year.

The speaker likes to play down his role in the gambling debate, which he says will without question wind up on the agenda for the 2004 session.

“I don’t think any one person is going to be responsible for the outcome on slots one way or the other,” Mr. Busch said.

But opponents and proponents of slots are watching the speaker’s comments closely, searching for clues about what he will do next year.

So far, he has kept them guessing.

“I don’t think that slots are a particularly good policy to start with,” Mr. Busch said. “I don’t think we should predicate balancing our budget off of revenues that we’re not sure are going to materialize.”

But the speaker said that doesn’t mean he will use the power of his office to kill slots at the 2004 session, which begins in January.

“We’re going to have to take a look at what’s going on around us,” he said.

Delaware and West Virginia have slot machines at racetracks, and the Pennsylvania Senate voted Thursday to allow as many as 3,000 slot machines at each of eight tracks. The bill has the support of Gov. Edward G. Rendell, but the House has not voted yet.

Authorizing slots at racetracks in Pennsylvania would increase pressure on the General Assembly to expand gambling in Maryland, Mr. Busch said.

That mirrors the argument made by Mr. Ehrlich, who says adjoining states are collecting millions of dollars annually from Marylanders who go to play the slots. He says that money should be kept at home to help pay for Maryland schools.

Although both sides agree that slot-machine gambling will be an issue again next year, no one, including the governor, is ready to commit to a specific proposal.

Mr. Ehrlich blames Mr. Busch for killing his bill in April and has said he will not introduce legislation in January if he thinks the speaker will kill it again. He is waiting for Mr. Busch to make the next move.

Mr. Busch had strong objections to portions of Mr. Ehrlich’s bill, especially the governor’s decision to limit slot machines to three existing racetracks — Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft — and a fourth track, proposed for Allegany County. The existing tracks could have each had 3,500 machines, and the proposed track 1,500 machines.

“One of my main concerns was enriching certain individuals because they happen to own a racetrack,” the speaker said.

Mr. Busch says the legislature should at least consider other options, including putting slot machines in locations other than racetracks to attract players from other states.

Mr. Busch also thinks the legislature should look into whether the state should operate slot-machine facilities instead of turning them over to track owners.

“The idea is, how can the state best control and oversee the expansion of gaming if in fact we want to go in that direction?” he said.

Paul Schurick, Mr. Ehrlich’s communications director, said there are signs the legislature is ready to move ahead with slot-machine legislation. The governor, in turn, “has made it clear to the legislative leadership that he is not absolutely wedded to his original proposal,” Mr. Schurick said.

He said Mr. Ehrlich is willing to consider all options if Mr. Busch “makes it clear that the bill can be fairly debated in the House.”

While the Ways and Means Committee conducts its study and Mr. Busch keeps everybody guessing, supporters and opponents are preparing for what they say will be an inevitable battle about gambling during the 2004 session.

“Absolutely, slots will be an issue,” said Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairman of NOcasiNO-Maryland, an antigambling group. “We haven’t killed the 800-pound gorilla yet. We’ve just kept the door shut to him.”

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