`No slots, no Thornton,' Ehrlich tells lawmakers

Governor dismisses estimate of Pimlico costs

February 27, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stormed through a day of confrontation over slot machines yesterday - picking a fight with Baltimore's mayor, cheering for an increase in traffic at Pimlico and bluntly warning lawmakers to pass his bill or face the demise of a historic bargain on education aid.

For the second straight day, Ehrlich made an appearance before a General Assembly committee - previously a rare occurrence for a governor - to drum up support for his top legislative priority of the session.

Again the governor offered legislators more arguments than answers. Aides acknowledged that his bill remains in a state of flux - with no final decision on how to split the proceeds of slot machines - on the 50th day of the 90-day session.

In testimony before a Senate committee, Ehrlich explicitly warned that if the legislation fails, there may be no money for a new school aid formula designed to help poorer jurisdictions. He outlined a stark choice: Expand gambling or scrap the recommendations of the Thornton Commission.

"There is no way Thornton gets funded without incredibly draconian cuts," Ehrlich told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Lawmakers said Ehrlich was even more direct at a private breakfast with the Legislative Black Caucus, in effect telling members: "No slots, no Thornton."

During his testimony, Ehrlich dismissed Mayor Martin O'Malley's estimates of the cost to Baltimore if slots were approved at Pimlico. In other comments, he said city residents should welcome increased traffic around Pimlico, and for the first time he indicated a willingness to consider slots at Timonium Fairgrounds.

The governor also refused to back down from a personal jab at House Speaker Michael E. Busch and questioned the credibility of a largely black ministers group.

The governor was joined at the witness table by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who took his own verbal swing at Busch's statement that he would be open to a proposal to send the issue to a statewide referendum.

"That's not leadership. That's followership," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

The day's activities showed that Ehrlich is pulling no punches in lobbying for slots.

The governor's bill - as originally submitted - would allow 10,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks. He has presented the legislation's passage as necessary to fill an almost $1.3 billion shortfall in next year's budget.

In his original bill, Ehrlich sought to reserve 64 percent of the proceeds for education. Yesterday, however, he said it could be revised to drop the schools' share to as little as 50 percent.

Ehrlich's Senate appearance yesterday showed that he is prepared to play hardball with critics such as O'Malley - whose representative urged a House committee Tuesday to kill the administration's bill.

In public testimony, Ehrlich dismissed a report by the O'Malley administration estimating that Baltimore would need $65 million in capital improvements to prepare for an influx of gamblers at Pimlico, where the governor wants to install 3,000 slots.

"Improving traffic is a good thing, but we don't buy into the $65 million," Ehrlich told senators. The governor said more traffic would be "a welcome sight" in the Pimlico area because too few people are going to the racetrack now.

Told of the governor's comments last night, O'Malley asked, "Did he read the report?"

The mayor said the city sent Ehrlich the report at the governor's request with only a week's notice.

"We gave him our best estimate of what those costs would be for a very large number of slots and business he is projecting would come to the track. I'd be curious to hear from him exactly which of the numbers he questions," O'Malley said.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and author of his own slots bill, joined in questioning O'Malley's estimates, saying he doesn't see a need for costly road improvements around Pimlico.

Ehrlich's comments about Pimlico traffic annoyed some of the legislators whose votes he may need to pass his bill.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who represents the district that includes Pimlico, said she was "insulted and offended" by the governor's dismissal of the issue. Gladden said that while the mayor's estimates may be "a little too rich," Ehrlich had come up with no numbers at all.

During his testimony, Ehrlich opened the door to the notion of placing slot machines at Timonium. "I have an open mind on that," he said in response to a question from Baltimore Sen. Verna L. Jones about why two tracks in predominantly white communities are not in his plans for slots.

Ehrlich said that despite his favorable views on slot machines, he deferred to the prevailing view on the Eastern Shore that slots at Ocean Downs would hurt Ocean City's tourism industry. He provided no explanation for not putting slots at Timonium.

After the hearing, Ehrlich played down the Timonium option. "We don't anticipate it, and it's certainly not something that's in our plan."

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