- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — House lawmakers yesterday began hearing more than a dozen gambling-related bills, drawing closer to considering Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s proposal to place slot machines at horse-racing tracks and at two off-site locations.

Delegates on the Ways and Means Committee are considering 16 such bills, some of which likely will garner serious consideration, including one that would deny entrance into slot emporiums to persons who are delinquent in taxes or child support, have filed for bankruptcies or are on public assistance.

Another bill would expand the number of slot emporiums owned by fraternal organizations into all of the state’s western counties. A third bill calls for studying the impact of slot machines should they be approved by the legislature.

“We should measure compulsive gambling, and this bill is key,” said Delegate Anne Kaiser, Montgomery Democrat, a member of the House committee calling for the study.

Mrs. Kaiser also said her support of the bill does not mean she is in favor of the proposal by Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to use slots revenue to help pay for public education.

“Support for this bill does not assume you are for or against gambling,” she said.

Delegate Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat, touted a bill that would allow fraternal organizations to have slot machines to cover expenses as their Eastern Shore counterparts have been doing since 1987.

He also submitted his own slots bill that would limit to 10,000 the number of slots at four horse tracks, with a focus on minority participation.

“To say that we don’t want slots in the state is a misnomer because they are already in the state,” he told fellow committee members.

Mr. Davis and other members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus have been pursuing guaranteed ownership of slots emporiums for minorities. Mr. Davis has vowed to amend Mr. Ehrlich’s legislation to address the caucus’ concern.

Though the committee is not considering Mr. Ehrlich’s plan until Tuesday, the hearing drew the attention of more than 200 members of activist, social and religious groups — most of whom were against any slots plan.

Among the most notable to testify was U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, who was joined by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, who are Democrats. All of them rejected any plan to bring slots to Maryland.

“I have always very strongly opposed gambling to raise revenue,” said Mr. Gilchrest. “This is not a partisan issue.”

Mr. Duncan told the committee that the proposal “doesn’t solve the state’s budget problem.”

Mr. Curran took his opposition a step further, saying the plans would be costly.

“The costs outweigh the benefits,” he said. “The cost of gambling in this state is going to bring about … an 8 percent increase in crime.”

Last year, the same committee — led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat — defeated the governor’s slots proposal.

Mr. Busch and fellow Democrats have proposed increasing the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent to pay for the $1.3 billion Thornton Education Act.

Mr. Busch again has proposed the same tax increase and wants to increase in the tax rate for the wealthiest Marylanders, which is now at 4.75 percent.

Fellow Democrats want to repeal the property-tax increase that Mr. Ehrlich enacted last year as a compromise to pass his slots legislation.

Mr. Ehrlich has vowed to veto new sales or income taxes in the state.

The administration and lawmakers are struggling to find additional revenue to fund the Thornton act, which is designed to reduce the disparity between rich and poor public school districts. Mr. Ehrlich’s original bill to fund the plan 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.

His new proposal 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 proposal so that 15,500 slot machines would go into six sites, with as many as four in Prince George’s.

The committee has yet to consider either proposal.

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