- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

BALTIMORE — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had a ready response yesterday when a small group of residents surrounded him at a public appearance and asked why his effort to legalize slot-machine gambling seemed stalled again.

“It is one person,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

He then gave out the phone number for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who killed the governor’s slots bill in committee in the past two legislative sessions and this year is refusing to reconcile the disparate slots bills passed by the General Assembly’s two chambers.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, is trying to use his personal appeal among voters to ratchet up public pressure on the speaker to compromise on slots.

“People are angry. They are upset. They want to get beyond” slots, Mr. Ehrlich told The Washington Times yesterday. “What it really comes down to is that I can use the bully pulpit and talk radio and newspapers” to rally slots supporters.

Mr. Busch was not available for comment yesterday.

A staff member for Mr. Busch said the Anne Arundel Democrat’s office had received numerous calls about slots for the past two years and that this year was no different.

Tyschka Downs, one of the residents who pressed the governor about slots yesterday when he visited Baltimore’s Brooklyn-Curtis Bay neighborhood to announce community development funding, said she would be giving Mr. Busch a call.

“I’m going to say, ‘You have to knock that stuff off. You think voters don’t have power, but they do have power and they are going to vote you out of here,” said Miss Downs, 55.

Recently published polls gave the governor a job-approval rating of about 54 percent. His favorable numbers are higher — topping 60 percent — in the administration’s statewide polls, a senior administration official said.

Mr. Busch has fared worse. A poll conducted in January for the Annapolis Capitol put Mr. Busch’s job-approval rating at 39 percent in his county and three neighboring counties.

However, Mr. Ehrlich has not fully capitalized on his positives and Mr. Busch’s negatives.

Pressure from House Democrats eager to satisfy their pro-slots constituents did prompt Mr. Busch to let a slots bill go to a full House vote this year. But when the House slots bill passed, the speaker issued an ultimatum that either the Senate accept his chamber’s version or else both bills die.

The House plan would authorize 9,500 slot machines in Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties and Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County. That is down from the 15,500 machines at seven venues sought by the Senate. The proposal passed by the House also calls for all slots revenue to be used for school construction.

The Senate version was closer to Mr. Ehrlich’s slots proposal and has passed that chamber each of the past three years with the aid of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat and the governor’s chief slots ally.

The Senate bill would designate $150 million from slots revenue to be spent on school construction each year for eight years. Mr. Ehrlich estimated that slots would generate as much as $800 million a year in state revenue and, in his bill, earmarked $100 million for school construction.

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