- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. predicted that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly this year will pass a slot-machine gambling bill, while the House panel that has killed the legislation for the past two years held a hearing on it yesterday.

“I’m fairly certain we’re going to get something this year,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat. “We have to move ahead.”

Mr. Miller, who has long supported plans by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, to use slots revenue for education initiatives, has taken a prominent role in promoting the gambling legislation this year.

“Politically, the Democrats need this issue,” Mr. Miller said. “We need to take it away from Governor Ehrlich and the Republicans.”

However, Ehrlich administration communications director Paul E. Schurick said the governor does not share Mr. Miller’s outlook.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who has helped stifle the legislation, was not available for comment yesterday. He said Tuesday that he will not support slots legislation.

The Senate yesterday gave preliminary approval to an altered version of the governor’s slots bill after killing amendments that would have weakened it. The Senate, which has approved the bill for the past two years, is expected to pass the legislation today or tomorrow.

The Senate version calls for slot machines to be placed at four horse-racing tracks and three off-track sites, as does the administration’s plan. But the exact locations would be determined by a commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders under the Senate plan.

In addition, owners of slots facilities would reap 36 percent of the gambling profits, not the 39 percent sought by the administration. The Senate plan also would require that $150 million from slots revenue be spent on public school construction each year for eight years.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee, which has killed the legislation for the past two years, opened a hearing on the Ehrlich bill yesterday with testimony from administration officials.

“The urgency is now for Maryland to come together to craft a program,” Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr. testified before the committee. “The question is not whether Marylanders are going to play slot machines, the question is when.”

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick agreed, saying the school system needs the extra revenue.

“This bill or the bill you craft needs to dress our extreme situation in regards to school construction,” Mrs. Grasmick said.

The administration’s plan is almost identical to last year’s ” establish 15,500 slot machines at four horse-racing tracks and three other sites that would generate about $800 million per year for education initiatives. The goal is to revive the state’s horse-racing industry and fund a billion-dollar education enhancement plan.

This year, Mr. Ehrlich has earmarked $100 million of slots revenue for school construction to encourage Democrats to approve the legislation.

The governor’s plan also calls for an additional $50 million for counties that spend more on education, such as Montgomery County, which has registered strong opposition to slot machines, especially in the House.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat considering a gubernatorial run next year, assailed the bill at a press conference sponsored by the group Stop Slots Maryland.

“The governor’s got his priorities backward,” said Mr. Duncan, who has told members of his county’s legislative delegation to vote against the bill. “To base the financial fate of Maryland on slots is like putting a sidewalk over quicksand.”

The Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie and president of the Collective Banking Group of Prince George’s County, said his group’s nearly 200 member churches are “unanimously in opposition to slots.”

“The quality of life is at stake for the state of Maryland,” Mr. Weaver said. “We do not want slots.”

The Washington Times reported last week that House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, said lawmakers have persuaded Mr. Busch to allow a full House vote on the legislation this year.

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