- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus says it will support the Ehrlich administration’s slot-machine bill if blacks are given ownership in two proposed casinos along Interstate 95.

“He will get slots if black folks get ownership,” Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat, told The Washington Times.

House Deputy Majority Whip Obie Patterson, chairman of the 42-member Black Caucus, yesterday said black ownership is essential to winning the approval of the caucus.

“It has been our position all along that we look at ownership and not just participation,” said Mr. Patterson, a Prince George’s County Democrat.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last week told The Times that he and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is black, agree that minority ownership is an essential part of the slots legislation.

“We know that is a concern of the Black Caucus, and we think it is a good idea,” the Republican governor said.

Mr. Ehrlich this year has proposed basically the same slots legislation he first offered to the General Assembly last year — a bill that would allow the state to reap revenue from licenses for 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks. However, he has included this year a measure that would set up 4,000 slot machines at two non-track sites along I-95 to garner support from House Democrats, who killed his legislation last year.

The governor said the additional sites can be privately or state owned, and that a panel consisting of himself and Senate and House leaders would decide where to put the gaming facilities. He expects the state to make $2 billion annually from the revised plan.

“If [track owners] can own the other four, why can’t we own the two?” Mr. Patterson said.

His comments came one day after six caucus members participated in an anti-slots rally and vowed not to accept a slots bill under any circumstances.

“We are just not entertaining [slots] at this point,” Mr. Patterson said. “We would entertain [slots] if some of these changes are made.”

He also does not support the panel making the decision about where to put the two additional locations.

“I think local control has to be a part of that process,” Mr. Patterson said.

Mr. McFadden said caucus members “at a minimum” want blacks to have at least 51 percent ownership of at least one site before helping Mr. Ehrlich win votes in the House and Senate.

Still, he says the first concern of the caucus is finding money to improve public education.

“The only reason we are having this discussion about expanding gambling is for the purpose of fully funding the Thornton” plan, he said.

The governor wanted to use slots revenue to pay for the Thornton plan, which attempts to erase the disparities between rich and poor school districts.

Mr. McFadden also confirmed that a slots bill by fellow Black Caucus member Delegate Clarence “Tiger” Davis, Baltimore Democrat, focuses on black business owners having an equal chance at receiving a gambling license.

Attempts to reach Mr. Davis for comment over the past week have been unsuccessful.

This is not the first time black lawmakers have played a prominent role in the slots legislation.

Last year, they supported efforts by black entrepreneurs and black athletes to earn some of the estimated $800 million in slots revenue. Black church leaders responded by saying the lawmakers were forgetting poor blacks who live around the racetracks but would not benefit from the revenue and who account for a disproportionate amount of lottery sales.

The late Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat, said last year that 25 to 30 members of the 42-member caucus would support slots only if minority ownership was part of the deal.

Winning more Democrats will be key to Mr. Ehrlich’s success.

Democrats hold the majority in the state House and Senate. Last year, Mr. Ehrlich’s slots legislation passed in the Senate by a 25-21 vote, but delegates never had a full vote because House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, helped defeat the bill in the House Ways and Means Committee.

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