- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

House Democrats are complaining that Speaker Michael E. Busch and a small group of the majority party’s leaders are keeping them in the dark about plans for legislation to legalize slot-machine gambling.

“There are very few folks that are making decisions these days,” said Delegate Henry B. Heller, a Democrat who has represented Montgomery County for 18 years and serves as the House chairman of the Joint Committee on the Management of Public Funds.

He said the partisan divide between the Democrat-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state’s first Republican governor in 35 years, has prompted House leaders to consolidate power and conceal information at the top of the party hierarchy.

In past legislative sessions, Mr. Heller said, the leadership met regularly with entire committees to craft a revenue package.

“It was much more inclusive,” he said. “Now it’s partisan, and you have your six committee chairs, your speaker pro tem and your majority leader meeting with the speaker.”

As a result, Mr. Heller and other Democratic delegates say they do not know what the leadership has in store for the slots bills. One longtime delegate complained about not knowing what to tell constituents who ask about the status of slots.

“We just haven’t been briefed on [slots],” said Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, Howard County Democrat. “I don’t know why.”

Mrs. Bobo, who has represented Howard County for nearly a decade, said the speaker’s opposition to the governor’s slots plan is well known, and the delegates will have to wait to see what kind of proposal, if any, survives the committee process.

Mr. Busch could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mr. Ehrlich has made slots a key component of his plan to balance the budget, save the state’s flagging horse-racing industry and help pay for an expensive education initiative designed to erase disparities between rich and poor public school districts.

The slots plan would generate about $800 million a year for the state, according to legislative analysts.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in both chambers are clamoring for higher taxes to ease the state’s budget woes. Yesterday, House Democratic leaders proposed a $670 million plan to increase the sales tax to 6 percent from 5 percent and increase the top income-tax rate to 6 percent from 4.75 percent.

The revenue package would also increase the title tax on new motor vehicles to 6 percent from 5 percent but would reduce income taxes for low-income residents and repeal last year’s increase in the property-tax rate, which Mr. Ehrlich engineered.

Last week, Mr. Busch reportedly told the governor that passage of slots was contingent upon approval of a higher sales tax and income tax — both measures that Mr. Ehrlich has vowed to veto. The speaker has continued to provide weekly updates for Democrats on taxes and other hot-button issues, excluding slots, lawmakers said.

“We’ve been bombarded with [sewerage] taxes and corporate taxes and the transportation bill, but we’ve had only brief discussions on slots, nothing of substance that would lead me to believe the leadership is leaning either way,” said Delegate Obie Patterson, Prince George’s Democrat and chairman of the legislature’s black caucus, which has been pushing for minority ownership of some slots emporiums.

“I know it is getting late in the day, and if we are going to get a slots bill we have to move it fast,” Mr. Patterson said. The legislative session is scheduled to adjourn April 14.

The House Ways and Means Committee today will hold hearings on the governor’s slots bill, but its fate may already be decided.

Last year, Mr. Busch orchestrated the slots bill’s death in the committee. He may do it again this year, despite his promise early in the session to allow the full House to vote on slots.

Many delegates predict the slots bill will pass if it makes it to the House floor.

A heavily amended version of the governor’s bill passed in the Senate last month. It would permit 15,500 slot machines at three horse tracks and three non-track slots casinos limited to locations in Baltimore City and Cecil and Prince George’s counties.

Delegate Clarence Davis, a Baltimore City Democrat who has introduced his own bill to legalize slots and dedicate the money to public schools, said the leadership’s tight-lipped approach to the slots issue has served him well.

“The speaker hasn’t given me any direction, so I’m free to pursue my views,” he said. “I’m moving full steam ahead regardless of what leadership wants. I think this bill is long overdue…. The economy of Maryland is at stake, and we can ill afford to lose the horse-racing industry.”

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