- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday proposed allowing voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow slot machines.

Mr. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, called for as many as 13,000 slot machines at three horse racing tracks and three off-site locations across the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has insisted repeatedly since taking office that slots should be decided by the General Assembly. A referendum, he has said, would not be his “preferred option.”

But yesterday, he called Mr. Busch’s proposal “the first positive step in two years.”

“There’s still a long way to go,” he said. “We’re making progress, and hopefully, this will have an impact.”

Ehrlich staffers have previously said that before the governor agrees to a referendum, he would need more details about Mr. Busch’s proposed referendum — including information about venues and the number of machines.

A recent poll showed 54 percent of Marylanders favor slots.

The first step would be getting the General Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment to allow as many as 13,000 slot machines and to limit the number at any one location to 3,500. If that is approved, the question would then go to the voters. Mr. Busch said amending the constitution sets limits on the future of gambling. He said Maryland has amended the document in other gambling matters, such as legalizing the state lottery in 1972.

Mr. Busch asked Mr. Ehrlich to decide on the proposal by Aug. 15, then call the legislature into special session. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly must meet and approve the amendment by Sept. 8 for the issue to be on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Mr. Busch has defeated Mr. Ehrlich’s slots proposal for two years in a row, instead proposing $670 million in sales- and income-tax increases to help racing and public education. However, he began discussing the referendum idea with Mr. Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. after the 2004 General Assembly ended this spring.

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, sounded a more pessimistic note, saying the plan “appears to be just another different way to kill the bill.”

“You never say never, but it’s going to be up to the governor,” he said.

Mr. Busch said his proposal meets the request of Mr. Ehrlich to help the state’s struggling horse-racing industry and keep Maryland money within the state.

Delaware and West Virginia have slots at racetracks, and are soon to be joined by Pennsylvania. An effort is also under way to bring 3,500 slots to the District, although the D.C. elections board ruled Thursday proponents had failed to gather the requisite number of valid signatures to put the measure on the ballot in November.

The out-of-state venues draw $309 million a year in revenue from Maryland gamblers.

Mr. Busch’s plan calls for as many as 13,000 slot machines at six sites, with a maximum of 3,500 machines at each site.

Mr. Busch said he would vote to put the slots question on the ballot, though he would vote against the amendment in November.

“I don’t think [slot machines] are good public policy,” Mr. Busch said yesterday. “We don’t believe in the long run the citizens of Maryland want slots in every community in bars and restaurants.”

For two years, Mr. Busch has led the defeat of Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to put more than 15,500 slot machines at four horse tracks and at two sites along Interstate 95. Mr. Ehrlich says the proposal would raise $800 million a year.

Mr. Busch’s plan, announced yesterday, is for slots in the Frederick area, at Timonium Racecourse in Baltimore County, at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County and at three state-owned tracts of land — one along Interstate 70 in Frederick County, another along Interstate 95 near Aberdeen in Harford County and one along Route 50 on the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Busch said the plan keeps money in Maryland by intercepting gamblers on their way to the out-of-state gambling hubs. He also said the details of his plan could be negotiated if Mr. Ehrlich want to go forward with a referendum.

Mr. Busch said his sites are along major highways or interstates to limit the impact gambling has on neighborhoods.

All but one of the locations — the Laurel racetrack — would be on state-owned land, and licenses for operating slots facilities would be awarded by competitive bids.

In a letter to Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Busch said the proposal was in the spirit of compromise.

“Given recent experiences in neighboring states, we believe this type of expanded gambling would have a major impact on the culture of Maryland and, for that reason, the voters should decide the issue directly,” he wrote.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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