- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic lawmakers yesterday dismissed two recent opinion polls indicating that a majority of Marylanders favor a plan by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, to license slot machines to pay for public education.

“The polling changes day to day and from month to month,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and a leading opponent of the slots proposal.

A poll by the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy estimates that 57 percent of Marylanders support legalizing slot machines, while 39 percent are opposed or strongly opposed. The poll was conducted from Jan. 18 to Feb. 11 and had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

A poll by Annapolis-based Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies of 825 registered Maryland voters showed about 54 percent of them support slots and 35 percent are opposed. The poll, conducted from March 19 to March 24, had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

House Ways and Means Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson, a Montgomery Democrat whose committee is considering the bill, also downplayed the results.

“Polls are polls,” she said. “It depends on what you are asking and who is asking.”

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve was the only leading state Democratic lawmaker interviewed yesterday who thought the polls reflect the will of the people, but said the results fail to tell the entire story.

“I am not questioning the poll,” said Mr. Barve, who represents Montgomery County. But “if we do what the poll say to do, we still have a huge deficit.”

Lawmakers critical of Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal to raise about $800 million a year by putting 15,500 slot machines at six sites say they would take several years to become fully operational. Meanwhile, the state faces an estimated budget shortfall of almost $1 billion in about a year.

House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones, Baltimore County Democrat, said the polls needed more focus.

“I would like to see a poll in the places where people actually live that will be affected by” slots, she said.

Said Mr. Ehrlich: “That is the worst excuse I have ever heard. If there are problems with the polling, they need to take that up with the [people doing the polling], not with us.”

He also questioned the results, saying the percentages of supporters were too low.

“Most of the polls we have seen are around 60 percent to 65 percent,” he said.

The Senate already has passed Mr. Ehrlich’s slots proposal, but with minor changes.

Delegates in the House Ways and Means Committee are debating the bill. They killed the bill last year and have about two weeks remaining in the General Assembly to either defeat the bill again or send it to a full House vote.

Instead of slots, Mr. Busch and fellow Democrats have proposed increasing the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to pay for the $1.3 billion Thornton Education Act.

They also want to increase the income-tax rate for the wealthiest Marylanders, which is now at 4.75 percent and repeal the property-tax increase that Mr. Ehrlich enacted last year.

The proposed $670 million tax-increase plan is now in a House and Senate conference committee.

Mr. Ehrlich has vowed to veto new sales or income taxes in the state. He also said if the slots proposal fails, he might have to cut as much as $500 million more in state programs to fund the court-mandated Thornton Act, which attempts to reduce the disparity between adequately performing and poorly performing school districts.

Mr. Ehrlich’s original proposal called for 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland horse tracks — Pimlico in Baltimore, Laurel Racetrack in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County and a proposed track in Allegany County.

This year’s proposal called for an additional 4,000 slots machines at two off-track sites along Interstate 95 — including one presumably in Prince George’s County near the National Harbor, a waterfront development under construction.

However, the Senate wants as many as four of the sites in Prince George’s County.

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