Ehrlich makes appeal for Md. slots

Says bill can save tracks

governor accuses Busch of playing the `race card'

February 26, 2003|By Michael Dresser and Greg Garland | Michael Dresser and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. opened the first legislative hearing on his proposed bill to allow slot machines at Maryland racetracks yesterday with an impassioned plea to save the horse racing industry and an unusual personal swipe at House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Making a rare gubernatorial appearance before a legislative committee, Ehrlich told lawmakers that some members of his administration see racing as a fading industry that should be allowed to die a natural death.

"It is a legitimate view that I reject wholeheartedly," Ehrlich told the House Ways and Means Committee. "I think that way of life and that industry and that culture are worth saving."

Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele applauded legislators for passing a bill last year adopting the recommendations of the Thornton Commission for a new education aid formula designed to bridge the gap between rich and poor jurisdictions. Slots, they contended, are needed to pay for the increased spending called for in the formula.

Ehrlich and Steele led a parade of witnesses pro and con who testified well into the night. Among those speaking in favor of the legislation was state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, making an unprecedented appearance on behalf of a revenue bill.

The governor spoke with unusual fervor, but his message may have been overshadowed by his blunt criticism of Busch, who sat stone-faced in the hearing room, for allegedly making race an issue in the debate.

Asked by a legislator about comments he made behind closed doors the day before about Busch playing "the race card," Ehrlich told the committee: "I meant what I said."

Busch, the General Assembly's leading opponent of slots, has asked why Ehrlich's proposal would put slot machines at tracks in low-income and heavily black neighborhoods but not at Timonium or Ocean Downs.

Ehrlich said it was "inappropriate" to raise that issue.

"I resented it. The lieutenant governor resented it," Ehrlich said, criticizing Busch for meeting recently in Baltimore with a group of predominantly black clergy on the slots issue.

"No one has explained to me why African-American preachers are being targeted," Ehrlich said. "Why not white preachers?"

Busch, who went to the hearing table minutes later to introduce an anti-slots witness, called Ehrlich's remarks "extremely hurtful."

The Anne Arundel County Democrat said his first meeting with clergy on the gambling issue was with a predominantly white group of ministers in Annapolis. Only later, he said, was he asked to meet with the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance in Baltimore.

"It was not something I pushed upon anyone. I was invited," Busch said.

Outside the hearing room, Busch said he was "astonished" that Ehrlich - a longtime friend - would say what he did in a public forum.

The Rev. Gregory Perkins, head of the ministerial alliance, dismissed Ehrlich's allegation that Busch had played the race card.

"I was not pressured. I was not targeted," Perkins said. He said he invited Busch to speak and would do so again.

Ehrlich made his case before a tough audience. Anti-gambling activists had packed the room more than an hour before the hearing - demonstrated by the prolonged applause Busch received when he entered the hearing room.

The exchange over race came as Ehrlich, Steele and others attempted to make a strong case for a bill whose details are almost entirely up in the air.

The administration is working on what appear to be wholesale revisions to a bill that met with near-total dissatisfaction when it was unveiled in late January. Racetracks said the governor's proposal to give them 25 percent of slots proceeds was unworkable, and other groups joined the chorus of complaints that their shares were too small. In response, the administration hired an outside consultant to re-evaluate the numbers.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the committee, pressed Budget Secretary James C. DiPaula Jr. to deliver the administration's revised formula for dividing the proceeds.

"I want to make sure we have the right numbers," DiPaula said. "We're very close. We need to review this with the industry."

Hixson replied: "If we don't have your numbers soon, we'll be dealing with our own. We're going into budget negotiations next week."

While Ehrlich's message focused largely on saving the horse racing industry, Steele emphasized the need for revenue for education.

"In 2002, you bought Thornton. In 2003, it's time to pay for it," the lieutenant governor told lawmakers. "If you take this out of the revenue stream, my fear is that our kids will be the ones who pay the price."

Grasmick, echoing Steele, asked lawmakers: "If not this, what? We cannot continue to provide high-quality education without the infusion of this money," she said.

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