- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. today in his State of the State address will reiterate his administration’s agenda and explain why the proposed Department of Disabilities is needed.

“I will make a case for our five pillars [fiscal responsibility, education, health and environment, public safety and commerce] and how we intend to strengthen the pillars of our administration,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican.

His proposed Department of Disabilities would regulate other state agencies that deal with persons with disabilities. It would be headed by Kristen Cox, currently the director of the governor’s Office for Individuals with Disabilities, and would have a $3 million budget and a staff of 21.

Republican strategist Kevin Igoe said Mr. Ehrlich likely would not offer new initiatives in his speech because the governor must “live with fiscal reality.”

“And the reality is that there is not a lot of money to do a lot of new things with,” Mr. Igoe said.

Gaining approval for the new Cabinet-level position may prove a daunting task for Mr. Ehrlich, who will face a Democratic-led General Assembly when he stands behind the lectern in the House of Delegates chamber today at noon.

Democratic delegates and senators this session have overridden four of his vetoes from last year — the first overrides of a veto since 1989.

“It is obviously a relevant speech,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “But probably not as anticipated and analyzed as last year’s. It is another chapter of making the case to the General Assembly and the general public.”

Another key issue will be legislation that would establish slot machines in Maryland.

On Monday, Mr. Ehrlich presented a revamped bill that would set up slot machines at state racetracks — the centerpiece of last year’s State of the State address. The new bill calls for 4,000 slot machines to be installed at two locations along Interstate 95 in addition to the 11,500 machines proposed for four racetracks.

Slot machine revenue — estimated to be as much as $2 billion — still would be used to fund improvements in public education, with track owners receiving a cut of the total profits.

Mr. Ehrlich noted opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, who helped kill the slots legislation in the Ways and Means Committee last year.

“Obviously on this issue, he has been adversarial,” the governor said, adding that he expects to gain Mr. Busch’s support on environmental issues.

Under Mr. Ehrlich’s new proposal, he, Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat and a supporter of the plan, would decide the locations of the slot machine parlors along I-95. However, Mr. Busch has said he wants nothing to do with the slots plan and instead favors a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund the school improvements.

“My concern is I don’t think this is a good public policy,” Mr. Busch said. “I don’t agree with it, I think if you value education then there is a shared responsibility with the community.”

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee released a draft report on a slots alternative, suggesting that the state own gambling halls and keep the lion’s share of revenue. The alternative calls for the state to award slots licenses on a competitive basis, instead of giving them to racetrack owners.

Isiah “Ike” Leggett, state Democratic Party chairman, said Mr. Ehrlich’s new slots bill likely will meet the same fate as last year’s if he doesn’t mention in today’s speech an additional funding source for education improvements.

“I think that for many Democrats he needs to come up with a comprehensive, long-term plan that is acceptable,” Mr. Leggett said. “One that provides long-term funding for education, the Transportation Trust Fund and health care, one that is not exclusively reliant of slots.”

Mr. Igoe disagreed. “The reason of not doing slots because it does not solve the entire problem is like saying you are not going to take the first step of a journey.”

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