- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers who support legalizing slot machines said yesterday the state now needs the money more than ever.

“The problem is so acute it’s like a boil that’s festered and needs to be lanced,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat who introduced the legislation.

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly is trying to cut a $4 billion structural deficit, the result of spending plans outpacing projected income over the next several years.

The slots issue was not expected to return to the Assembly after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was defeated after trying four straight years to pass the legislation. Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, wants to wait a year before considering slots or tax increases and to resolve the short-term budget problem by borrowing.

However, Mr. Miller said the state cannot delay and is proposing 15,500 slot machines at seven locations throughout Maryland and increasing the state’s gas tax by 12 cents a gallon.

The senators who debated Mr. Miller’s proposal yesterday said supporters should focus on persuading lawmakers in the House, where House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, routinely killed the proposal in the past.

“Your problem is on the other side,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat. “I think you need to go over there.”

Mr. Miller does not expect lawmakers to pass the legislation this session, but has suggested Maryland will get slots through a special session when the Assembly ends in mid-April or within a year.

Asked whether this is the year that Maryland will approve slots, even slots supporter Sen. Ulysses Currie hedged his bets.

“This is the beginning of preparation for a comprehensive solution,” said Mr. Currie, Prince George’s Democrat who leads the committee considering the slots bill.

O’Malley spokesman Rick Abruzzese said the governor “has always supported a limited number of slots at [horse] tracks for the purpose of saving racing jobs.”

Mr. Miller said he will wait for the governor before he “pulls the trigger” on slots.

Opponents said they are confident they will still be able to block slots measures, even as budget pressures escalate.

“The first year [Mr. Ehrlich] introduced [slots], he said it was a done deal,” said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for StopSlots Maryland.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, issued a statement yesterday saying he opposes slots.

Mr. Ehrlich lobbied hard to use slots, in part, to supplement the state’s ailing horse-racing industry.

While the state’s financial situation is shaky, horse-racing officials said their industry is in worse condition.

“We’re facing a tsunami and it’s fast approaching,” said Wayne W. Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “We’re at the end of the line.”

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