- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Republican lawmakers rallied yesterday to support Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s effort to keep his budget powers and pass his slots legislation.

“We have been busy trying to diminish the power of the governor and [are] too busy to deal” with slots, said Delegate Richard B. Weldon Jr. “Gov. Ehrlich has kept his promise, and now it is time for [House Speaker Michael E. Busch] to keep his.”

Mr. Weldon, Frederick and Washington counties Republican, joined about 30 of the House’s 43 Republicans in claiming that Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, is trying to derail Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to put slot machines at four racetracks and two off-track sites along Interstate 95 to pay for the Thornton Education Act.

He and fellow Republicans said Democrats instead have focused their attention on reducing a 90-year-old state law that gives Maryland governors the power to cut the state budget.

The House approved a bill Tuesday that would stop Mr. Ehrlich and the other two Board of Public Works members from cutting the budget when the General Assembly is not in session, and the Senate is considering a similar bill.

House Minority Leader George C. Edwards, Garrett and Allegany Republican, said Mr. Busch so far has done nothing with the slots issue.

“It is time for the speaker to move this through,” he said.

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to review the governor’s slots legislation on Tuesday. A final vote must occur before the General Assembly session concludes April 12.

Mr. Ehrlich’s slots bill passed the Senate last year, but died in the House committee. The effort to defeat the bill was led by Mr. Busch, who instead wants to increase the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents on the dollar to pay for $1.3 million Thornton Act, which attempts to reduce the funding gap between rich and poor public-school districts.

Mr. Busch, who met with Mr. Ehrlich earlier this week about slots, said he has not ruled out a tax increase.

“We will lay out all the options and see where the votes are,” he said.

Mr. Busch also said it was too early to tell whether a deal could be reached on slots.

“We don’t even have the budget yet,” he said. “When we get the budget we are going to look at slots.”

The budget is scheduled for a final reading in the Senate todayand should arrive in the House next week.

The slot-machine proposal, which was approved last month by the Senate, has changed considerably since Mr. Ehrlich submitted it.

Mr. Ehrlich’s original bill called for 11,500 slot machines at the Pimlico horse-racing track in Baltimore, Laurel Racetrack in Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County and a proposed track in Allegany County.

Mr. Ehrlich’s new plan called for an additional 4,000 slots machines at two off-track sites along Interstate 95 — including one presumably in Prince George’s County near the National Harbor, a waterfront development under construction.

However, the Senate revised the plan so that 15,500 slot machines would go into six sites, with as many as four in Prince George’s County to generate $800 million for public schools.

The revision prompted Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, to distribute a letter to the 23 delegates representing the county asking them not to support placing slot emporiums in the county.

Republicans yesterday said they would vote for the Senate version of the bill.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties Republican, said the party also supports Mr. Ehrlich’s promise to helping minority entrepreneurs win ownership in the proposed slots emporiums.

The Ehrlich administration made the offer to the 42-members of the Democrat-controlled Maryland Democratic Black Caucus in exchange for their support of the bill.

“We will continue to work with all our colleagues in the House,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

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