- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

ANNAPOLIS The House Democratic Caucus has met behind closed doors to "clear the air" about feared political fallout from deep budget cuts or tax increases if their leaders block the governor's slots bill.
"There certainly were concerns among a lot of members about what the possible fallout or payoffs might be politically," said Delegate Pauline H. Menes, Prince George's County Democrat. "It was clearly laid out that the reaction of the general public would be different in different parts of the state."
Some Democratic lawmakers from wealthy urban centers believe their constituents would accept higher taxes but would balk at cuts to popular programs.
Those representing less-affluent rural areas said sparing programs wouldn't soften constituents' wrath if Democrats mustered a large majority to force higher sales, sin or gas taxes all opposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, originally was receptive to a modest tax increase on gasoline, but this week he said he cooled to the idea because a U.S. war with Iraq could raise prices at the pump.
Meanwhile, revised revenue estimates released Tuesday increased this year's budget shortfall by $106 million and the fiscal 2004 shortfall by $111 million. The new numbers pushed the total deficit to more than $2 billion over the next 16 months.
Legalizing slot-machine gambling at horse tracks is key to Mr. Ehrlich's plan for balancing the budget and financing a mandate to equalize public-school funding. Slots proceeds account for about $165 million in revenue in the proposed fiscal 2004 budget, which begins July 1. Slots are projected eventually to provide more than $600 million a year earmarked for education.
Mr. Ehrlich's bill would permit 3,500 slot machines each at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Laurel Racetrack in Anne Arundel County and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.
The Democratic Party has split over expanding legalized gambling, most noticeably in the top ranks of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. The slots measure is opposed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, and championed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's County Democrat.
The bill is expected to sail through the Senate. In the House, a bill for a yearlong moratorium on slots legislation seems to have an equal chance for passage as Mr. Ehrlich's slots bill.
With less than four weeks remaining in the legislative session, many lawmakers and party leaders are giving the slots measure a 50-50 chance of surviving this year. At the same time, they see few political spoils to reap from the bill's defeat.
The Republican Party would be the only beneficiary if Democrats kill slots legislation, Mr. Ehrlich has told The Washington Times.
"If slots fail, I think people would see fairly draconian repercussions," Mr. Ehrlich said. "There will be a lot of howling and screaming."
The governor said he did not want to capitalize on any defeat of slots by blaming Democrats for cuts to popular government programs. His goal is to win approval for slots and pump dollars into education, a goal he says most Marylanders share.
"There is no doubt that a pro-slots position is the right position politically in the state today," he said. "When you lose on a political issue, yet it is a popular issue, obviously you try to turn it around."
The House speaker said political backlash was the least of his worries when confronting such a major policy change as transforming Maryland into a state with slots casinos. The issue transcends politics, said Mr. Busch.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat, said the governor and the Republican Party would be better positioned than Democrats to weather drastic budget cuts, but a slots defeat still would wound the administration.
"You can never capitalize on losing anything in politics," said Mr. Barve, a leading opponent of slots.
"He could successfully [blame Democrats for cuts or taxes] with some people, but Republicans will not be forgiving for raising taxes, if he does that," he said. "But I'm not convinced that draconian cuts hurt the governor too much."
Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the party had not taken a position on slots. He acknowledged the importance of having an alternative package of budget cuts and taxes that would be acceptable to Marylanders.
He said the General Assembly had to offer budget alternatives that would adequately fund education and health services and promote minority business interests priorities identical to the governor's.
"We could be extremely criticized if we reject [slots] and don't have a comprehensive, alternative plan," Mr. Leggett said. "Democrats will be quite disappointed."
On the other hand, a victory for Mr. Ehrlich on slots would not amount to a defeat for Democrats, he said, adding that the credit also would go to the Senate president and other Democrats supporting the bill.

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