- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday asked state senators to approve and promote his plan to legalize slot-machine gambling, a measure that has died in the House for the past two years.

“Clearly, the votes are here for this bill in this committee and on the floor of the Senate,” Mr. Ehrlich testified before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. “This is the year to do it. The message needs to go out that the state of Maryland really does care.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has taken a prominent position in promoting the governor’s slots plan this year, also testified before the committee.

“My presence here today demonstrates it’s not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democrat issue, it’s a people issue,” said Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s County Democrat who has secured Senate support for slots for the past two years.

The Ehrlich administration’s plan is almost identical to last year’s version — establishing 15,500 slot machines at four Maryland horse-racing tracks and two other sites that would generate about $800 million per year for education initiatives.

However, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, 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 extra $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.

Mr. Ehrlich testified that he fears for the state’s flagging horse-racing industry as well as the environmental and cultural effects of closing horse farms.

“There is undue pressure already,” he said. “When those farms go, they’re gone. These farms are never to return. … One day we are going to wake up and say we should have done something.”

Mr. Miller told The Washington Times after his testimony that he is talking with administration officials about amending the bill to delete specific slots locations to help the bill’s passage.

“We think we are going to work it out,” he said. “I think the chief question is whether we leave the sites up to a commission.”

Opposition to the slots bill is mounting.

However, the group Stop Slots Maryland refused to testify because its coordinating chairman, Aaron Meisner, anticipated that the Senate budget panel would pass the bill easily.

“We are not getting a fair hearing in the Senate,” Mr. Meisner said at a press conference before the hearing. “It has demonstrated over and over we are bringing the truth to the legislature, and that truth is not being heard.”

He said his group would protest in the House Ways and Means Committee, which has killed the bill for the past two years.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat who has helped stifle the legislation, declined to comment.

Mr. Busch this month proposed tapping the state’s rainy-day fund to pay for $100 million in school construction, a move aimed in part at thwarting the slot-machine gambling plan.

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