- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said yesterday that he hopes blacks participate in the competition to own proposed slot-machine venues but added that there are no guarantees they will own any sites.

“We are saying that we are encouraging minority participation across the board,” said Mr. Steele, Maryland’s first black to hold a statewide office. “Now what takes place is up to investors.”

Members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus have said that they would support Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s plan to use revenue from slot-machine licenses to fund public education if blacks are guaranteed ownership of two proposed slot-machine emporiums.

Support from the Democratic-run black caucus would be key in helping pass the legislation, which was defeated last year by House lawmakers.

But Mr. Steele, said the 42 members of the caucus should expect no special consideration or preferences from the Ehrlich administration.

“I don’t need to cut a deal with the black caucus,” he said. “We are not in an adversarial position. It is an administration bill.”

Mr. Steele said the administration wants to help blacks without pandering to them.

“It is about building a coalition,” he said. “It is about building a relationship. I don’t need to do a special program for black folks. We need to get away from this notion we need to do something special for our community because it creates dissension and people feel we are handicapped.”

Delegate Obie Patterson, Prince George’s Democrat and chairman of the caucus, said, “At the very least, we need to be given a competitive edge.”

Mr. Patterson also said he would not support slots legislation if the administration does not make such a commitment.

Mr. Ehrlich has said that the state needs revenue from proposed 11,500 slots at four horse tracks and 4,000 at two non-track sites to fully fund the $1.3 billion Thornton education initiative, created to reduce the disparity between rich and poor public school systems.

The Senate has approved its version of the Ehrlich plan. It calls for as many as four venues in Prince George’s County.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, led opposition to the 2003 version of the bill, which included no no-track sites and was defeated in the Ways and Means Committee. Mr. Busch wants to fund the Thornton act by increasing the state sales tax from five cents to six cents.

The House committee is scheduled to review the governor’s slots legislation next Tuesday.

Delegate Clarence Davis, a caucus member and Baltimore Democrat who has said that he will propose an amendment assuring minority ownership of slot emporiums, was not available yesterday for comment.

Mr. Steele said guaranteeing blacks a percentage ownership also raises constitutional issues.

He said “a number” of minority business owners have lined up to bid, but he declined to say how many or name them.

“As far as minority equity and participation, we are not worried about that piece,” he said. “We will have some minority participation.”

He also said the administration is not concerned about a group of roughly 100 predominantly black ministers who last week protested slots, saying they will increase crime and compromise family stability.

If gambling is what parishioners choose to do, “there is not a church or a government that is going to stop them,” Mr. Steele said.

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