Governor likely to pull back from slots projection

Ehrlich had planned 13,500 machines among three racetrack casinos

January 24, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

An aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said last night that the governor is likely to pull back from the 13,500 slots at three racetracks his plan projected for legislators this week.

Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's chief spokesman, said the governor's plan could make up the difference by increasing the earnings from each machine.

The administration's show of flexibility comes after reports that Ehrlich would propose giant racetrack casinos with 4,500 slots at the Pimlico, Rosecroft and Laurel racetracks met with opposition from key lawmakers.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings -- supporters of slots who frequently disagree on other issues -- both said lawmakers would not approve racetrack casinos that large.

Ehrlich appears determined to go forward with one aspect of his proposal over the objections of the two powerful legislators.

Schurick said the state's proceeds from slots would not be put into a dedicated fund for education -- as demanded by Miller and Rawlings.

"This proposal will go to the general fund," Schurick said. He said the administration plans to announce next week details of the legislation, which is being drafted.

While Schurick said the number of slots Ehrlich will propose for the three tracks could come in at fewer than 13,500, he indicated the administration will hold close to its estimate that the state can earn $600 million from the machines two years from now.

Rawlings, who has introduced a rival bill limiting slots to 2,500 at each track, said Ehrlich has to modify his plans for the three Central Maryland racetracks to win approval of his legislation.

The Baltimore Democrat noted that the 4,500-machine operations that Ehrlich aides had described would rival the largest casinos in the country.

"Before we can even have a debate on this issue, the issue is, are we going to outdo casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas," Rawlings said.

Miller said he met with Ehrlich yesterday and that the governor told him "the public will be very pleased" with his plan. However, the Senate president insisted that for any slot machines proposal to succeed, "it has to be linked with public schools."

The lawmakers' statements came as a new poll showed a slight rise in opposition to slots among Marylanders.

The survey by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications showed that while support for slots has held steady at 46 percent since August, opposition has increased from 37 percent to 40 percent.

Opponents of slot machines held a second organizational meeting yesterday in Annapolis aimed at forming a broad-based coalition to fight expanded gambling.

W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist who is helping to organize the group, said the effort received pledges of more than $40,000 from groups opposed to racetrack slots -- including trade associations for restaurants and taverns.

Carter dismissed administration efforts to make the proposal more palatable.

"If you put the machines in to make the numbers, it's obscene," he said. "And if you put a number of slots that are reasonable, you don't make the numbers. It's a Catch-22."

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