- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

OCEAN CITY — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says the state’s budget surplus will not alter his long-stalled plan to legalize slot machine gambling.

“The billion-dollar surplus does not take the pressure off slots at all,” Mr. Ehrlich told The Washington Times during the summer conference for the Maryland Association of Counties this week. “Slots is not a money issue.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said his plan was not aimed at filling the state’s coffers but at revitalizing Maryland’s dying horse-racing industry — saving jobs and horse farms and keeping the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico race track.

The plan has been killed in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly — specifically, the House of Delegates — for three years in a row.

Mr. Ehrlich campaigned on legalizing slots when he won the governor’s office in 2002.



At the time, he said expanded gambling would not only save Maryland racing but also help fund public schools and bridge a $1.6 billion budget shortfall.

His first slots proposal in 2003 boasted $400 million in the state revenue the first year and as much as $800 million annually. He said it would enable him to keep his campaign promise to balance the budget without layoffs of state workers.

Mr. Ehrlich managed to balance the budget and keep his promise to state workers that year without slots revenue.

Still, his push for slots has not relented as an economic turnaround has helped turn the state’s $1 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus.

Mr. Ehrlich said it is only a matter of time before slots-subsidized racing in surrounding states drain away Maryland’s estimated 20,000 racing jobs. Maryland breeders likely will sell out and allow 20,000 acres of pastures to turn into housing developments and strip malls, he said.

The horse industry’s share from slots would go to the prize money horse owners collect for winning races.

Racing insiders say smaller purses mean fewer horses at the track, fewer people in the stands and the continued decline of an industry in Maryland that predates the Revolutionary War.

“We know what we need to do to save the industry, and slots are part of it,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It’s going to be a major issue in 2006 in the [governor’s] race.”

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