- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch reversed his reversal yesterday on slot machines, telling The Washington Times he would not back the Ehrlich administration’s plan to put slots in racetracks or anywhere else to pay for public education.

Mr. Busch, a Democrat, is considered the linchpin in the slots debate. The state Senate approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s plan in the last General Assembly to place slots in four Maryland racetracks. But Mr. Busch led the opposition in the House that defeated the proposal.

“I think that it is bad public policy,” he said yesterday.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he would not reintroduce the plan in the upcoming session unless he received Mr. Busch’s support.

Mr. Busch suggested this past summer that he might change his mind, especially if state-run gambling emporiums were created for the slot machines or if they were put in more than the four tracks designated by Mr. Ehrlich — Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft Raceway in southern Prince George’s County, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and the proposed Little Orleans in Cumberland.

However, Mr. Busch said he changed his mind after reading a recent study that found the plan would be more effective if the machines were put in casinos. He also said the findings of another study is expected before the start of the legislative session in January, but did not say he would be willing to compromise in the near future.

A major concern for Mr. Busch is that racetrack owners would receive too much of the profits.

“I have said we should have ultimate public control because it is a giveaway to race track owners,” he said.

He also thinks the state’s budget problems should be fixed by making cuts.

“Slots at best raises $600 million, and it would be two years before we see that,” Mr. Busch said.

The study, conducted by Jeffrey C. Hooke of the Maryland Tax Education Foundation and Thomas A. Firey of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, indicates the state would make more money if the machines were put in private casinos instead of the four designated tracks.

Neither Mr. Hooke nor Mr. Firey could be reached for comment yesterday.

Mr. Ehrlich has said slots are critical to providing more money to public schools through a program known as the Thornton Commission education plan. The governor said he would find money in the state budget through 2005 for kindergarten through 12th grade, but has left future funding up to the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.

Mr. Busch would not say yesterday whether he ultimately would oppose a slots bill this session.

“I am waiting to see what [Mr. Ehrlichs] comprehensive solution to the budget is first,” Mr. Busch said. “I am willing to work with the governor for an overall solution to the budget.”

Mr. Ehrlich’s spokesman, Henry Fawell, said the existing plan would generate $700 million, not $600 million.

“The governor has the best proposal for earning money for education without raising the sales or income tax,” Mr. Fawell said. “Every poll shows between 60 or 70 percent approval for slots. The governor’s proposal dedicates every single dollar of the state’s percentage to public education in Maryland.”

Meanwhile, efforts to put slot machines in at least one of the original tracks continued yesterday.

Members of the House Ways and Means Committee toured Pimlico and heard from the track’s operators and neighbors while looking at possible sites for slot machines.

Pimlico Executive Officer Joseph DeFrancis told committee members the racecourse “desperately” needed to offer slots to compete with tracks in Delaware and West Virginia.

William Peacock of the Northwest Baltimore Corp. said he has lived in the neighboring Woodmere community for 33 years. He told the delegates that if the state legalizes slots, they should allow them at Pimlico to help develop the surrounding area.

Ronnie Footlick, chairwoman of the board of directors of nearby Sinai Hospital, also spoke in favor of slots at Pimlico.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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