- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele yesterday appealed to a Senate committee for quick passage of slots legislation, which they said will include minority ownership of proposed gambling establishments.

In addition, Mr. Ehrlich said revenue from slot licenses would not be enough to fully fund an initiative to improve public schools.

“We have to pay for this somehow,” the Republican governor told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. “It is not the entire answer, but it is a significant part of the answer.”

Mr. Ehrlich has proposed licensing slot machines at four racetracks to generate as much as $2 billion in revenue to fund the Thornton education-improvement plan. The Thornton plan calls for an additional $1.3 billion in education spending by 2008.

The Washington Times reported last week that leaders of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus said they would support Mr. Ehrlich’s slots bill if blacks are guaranteed ownership of two proposed slots parlors along Interstate 95.

Mr. Ehrlich’s and Mr. Steele’s remarks yesterday were their first public comments on black ownership, which could win a significant number of votes from the caucus’ 42 Democratic members.

“We have been looking at sectors, in particular in the minority business community,” said Mr. Steele. “The potential is phenomenal.”

Mr. Steele said that the state turns away about $500 million in minority money to surrounding states.

“This is a big piece of the pie,” he said. “A half billion is real money, and we need that real money right now.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Carolyn J.B. Howard, who attended the hearing, said Mr. Ehrlich’s testimony was “convincing.”

“He did say minority involvement,” said Mrs. Howard, who represents Prince George’s County. “I wanted to hear [more about] minority ownership, but maybe he is still working on that.

“I think it is important for him to come to the Ways and Means Committee and give that same presentation,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat, said he was “very cautiously optimistic.”

“It was the first public recognition of the importance of African-American ownership in this process, if we do come to have slots,” he said.

Yesterday, State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer spoke in favor of the Ehrlich slots proposal.

“I am aware that slots are not the answer, it’s a partial answer,” said Mr. Schaefer a former Democratic governor. “If I could find another source, then maybe I wouldn’t be for it. But I can’t find another source.”

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who helped kill the Ehrlich slots bill last year, has said that slots legislation will not pass the General Assembly this year without a tax increase.

The Thornton Act — which the General Assembly passed in 2002 — calls for $365 million in additional education spending this year. But Mr. Ehrlich has cut that sum by about $40 million, citing the need to close a $700 million deficit left by his predecessor, Parris N.Glendening, a Democrat.

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