- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday made a last-minute decision to testify before a House committee on his proposal to license slot machines to fund public education.

“I was not necessarily invited,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said after his address to the House Ways and Means Committee, but Chairman Sheila E. Hixson “was nice enough to let me speak.”

The governor planned only to attend a pro-slots rally on Lawyers Mall yesterday but changed his mind about 20 minutes before the start of the hearing.

He told members of the Democrat-controlled committee that if they voted against his slots proposal as they did last year, then the administration would have to practice “more fiscal restraint.”

Mr. Ehrlich said he would find the money to pay for the Thornton Education Act but that other state programs would suffer.

He said $500 million more in cuts will be needed if he cannot raise money through slot machines to fund the court-mandated Thornton act, which attempts to close the gap between adequately performing and poorly performing school districts.

Administration officials say they already have made more than $1.2 billion in cuts since taking office last year to offset a $1 billion-a-year budget shortfall left by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Mr. Ehrlich has said as much as 97 percent of the $1.3 billion needed for the Thornton act could come from putting 15,500 slots machines at four racetracks and two off-track sites along Interstate 95.

The Senate last year approved the proposal, which did not include emporiums, but it was defeated in the House in an effort led by Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat. Mr. Busch instead proposed increasing the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent.

This year, the Senate approved the proposal but modified it to guarantee emporiums in Prince George’s County.

The House committee could vote on the proposal by Friday, with about two weeks remaining in the General Assembly session.

Among the roughly 250 participants at the rally, some shouted “no more Busch” and “no new taxes.”

Mr. Ehrlich told them the proposal now comes down to the committee vote.

“If we lose that, we have lost,” he said.

Joe Pons, an 82-year-old breeder from Harford County, home of the Triple Crown racehorse Cigar, was happy to see the governor speak.

“There won’t be any more Cigars if things continue to go this way,” he said.

Kathy O’Halloran, who works in security at Pimlico Race Course — one of the four sites where slots are proposed — said she no longer wants to travel to nearby states to play slots.

“I am tired of taking my money somewhere else,” she said.

Willie Coleman, vice president for security for the Maryland Jockey Club, agreed.

“How can anybody say slots won’t help the state of Maryland?” Mr. Coleman asked. “All we want is a level playing field.”

Still, House Deputy Majority Whip Emmett C. Burns Jr., Baltimore County Democrat, remained unconvinced.

“They love slots and I don’t,” he said. “Gambling is a bad thing for good people who end up in a bad situation.”

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