- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Md. — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday said he was optimistic that stalled legislation that would legalize slot machines could be passed despite disagreement in the General Assembly and the fast-approaching end of this year’s legislative session.

On a visit to the Rod ‘N’ Reel Restaurant in the one-time slots hub of Chesapeake Beach, Mr. Ehrlich continued his last-minute push to persuade lawmakers to compromise on different slots bills passed by the House and Senate.

“We believe the bill can and will be passed,” the governor said shortly before losing $25 on a test of the restaurant’s pull-tab machines, which closely resemble slot machines but are legal.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said he has met privately with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch several times in recent weeks, but the talks have not produced an agreement.

If the session ends Monday without a slots bill, it would be the third year in a row that Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal has failed in the General Assembly.

Asked whether he also thought a slots bill could pass, Mr. Miller said, “Quite frankly, I don’t.”

“We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there,” he said, but added that he is “keeping an open mind.”

Some House leaders think Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, is holding up the budget in hopes of using it as leverage to persuade the House to try to gain passage of a slot machine bill before the end of the General Assembly session.

Mr. Miller denies that he and Senate fiscal leaders have any hidden agenda in holding up the budget.

The budget dispute between the House and Senate involves the House plan to reduce the state property tax, which was increased by Mr. Ehrlich two years ago to help balance the state budget.

The House originally wanted to take the tax back to 8.4 cents per $100 of assessed value, the level that was maintained from 1981 until Mr. Ehrlich increased it to 13.2 cents.

When Senate budget negotiators refused to accept the proposed cut in the tax rate, House leaders offered to compromise with a 2 cent rate reduction. That would be one penny in addition to the reduction of 1 cent that Mr. Ehrlich already had included in his budget. The additional 1 cent cut would cost about $41 million.

Mr. Miller said Friday that money is so tight that “a lot of basic functions of government have not been adequately funded this year.”

“We are not going to give away money we don’t have,” he said.

The Senate slots proposal, which Mr. Ehrlich favors, would install 15,500 machines at four horse tracks and three other locations statewide. The machines would generate an estimated $1.6 billion. The House version calls for 9,500 slots machines at four sites, and would generate $1 billion in revenue.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, has said any significant changes to the House bill, which passed with just the minimum number of votes required, would erase support in the House.

During a carefully choreographed visit to the restaurant, Mr. Ehrlich touted the effect that legalized gambling can have on a business and community, an effort to dispel the belief that slot machines would breed social and economic decay in the areas that host them.

The Rod ‘N’ Reel, which sits on the Chesapeake Bay and includes a hotel, marina and two restaurants, has 87 pull-tab machines. The machines look like slot machines and take cash but dispense tickets, not coins. The tickets can be redeemed for cash at the restaurant’s bar. Maryland courts have ruled that the machines are legal despite the state’s ban on slots.

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