Revisions to Ehrlich's bill on slots expected Friday

House plan likely to allow only study of the issue

March 05, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration is not expected to deliver its long-awaited overhaul of its slots machine legislation until Friday, a high-ranking House Democrat said yesterday.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a key member of House Speaker Michael E. Busch's leadership team, said an administration official told her the revised bill to legalize slots at Maryland racetracks will take that long to complete.

Busch said the House leadership is moving forward with its legislation. The speaker did not offer specifics, but he indicated the bill that will emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee is unlikely to give Ehrlich anything more than a commission to study the issue.

"We're still fine-tuning a House proposal," Busch said. He said the details should be settled by next week.

Ehrlich administration officials would not commit to any deadline for releasing details of the legislation, which is apparently undergoing a thorough revamping after the version released in January was summarily rejected by horse racing interests.

"It's got to be soon," said James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's budget secretary. The administration is under heavy pressure -- not just to deliver new numbers fast but also to produce a plan that is palatable to a wide variety of competing interests.

The administration has put the General Assembly in the position of having held hearings on a bill that legislators knew was obsolete.

The proposal Ehrlich now has on the table would install 10,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks -- Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and one to be built in Allegany County. The original bill called for 64 percent of the proceeds to go to education. But the revision is expected to change that formula, and it may change the number of machines.

McIntosh said the administration's revisions are coming too late. "You can't give the legislature a bill of this magnitude and give us one week to look at it," the Baltimore Democrat said.

In a little more than a week, the House is scheduled to take up the budget. Ehrlich has tied his slots bill to the budget by relying on up-front gambling licensing fees to provide $395 million toward closing the state's $1.2 billion shortfall next year. Legislative leaders, however, said they will not rely on that money to close the budget gap.

While many House Democrats will not rule out slots, many agree with Busch that such a complicated issue requires more study than the Assembly can conduct this year.

"From the tenor and tone I see in the Democratic meetings we have on Tuesday mornings, there is significant discomfort with passing any slots bill this year on the House side," said McIntosh, who is chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Ehrlich has publicly stated that he will not bring back slots legislation next year if the Assembly blocks its passage this year. Busch discounted that pledge, however.

Leaders of the Senate continue to hold out hope that they can pass a slots bill this year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he had been told by DiPaula that the administration's amendments had been hung up over disagreements on provisions about improvements at the racetracks.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, would not criticize the governor. "I would prefer that when they come out with the number that they have it right this time," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

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