House rules

March 26, 2003

THE STATE Senate should follow the House of Delegates' lead and remove any trace of slot machine revenue from its budget proposal. Uncoupling the two - slots and the budget - would allow for an orderly conclusion to the 2003 Assembly session and avoid the spectacle of appearing to enrich racetrack owners who would house slots in their facilities.

As matters stand, the Senate is attempting to smuggle slots into law. It expects the House to kill Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machine bill, thus dooming new gambling for this year unless another vehicle is found. Thus the Senate budget bill calls for the track owners to make a token down payment of $15 million in license "application fees," which the House is also likely to reject.

A standoff would ensue, with the Senate using the budget to leverage passage of the slots bill. The Assembly can't be held in session to deal with slots alone, but it can't adjourn under the state constitution until it passes a budget.

It's an altogether unseemly and manufactured bit of legislative gridlock. With the House version of a balanced budget on the table without slots revenue, the necessity of passing a slots bill this year should have evaporated.

To persist in the pursuit of slots is also a risky enterprise for Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller and Governor Ehrlich. Both benefited from large contributions from gambling interests: more than $500,000 went to a national campaign committee Mr. Miller controls, and Governor Ehrlich's campaign got more than $120,000.

Appearances of such conflicts already may have diminished support for slots in the Senate. Senator Miller has made matters even more offensive by threatening to push the Assembly into extended session.

The budget deficit is hardly sufficient cover. Even if slots are made legal, they will not produce appreciable revenue for months or years, depending on circumstances. And even if they were up and running, they wouldn't come close to erasing the state's deep and continuing deficit.

With the budget coming under final consideration by the full Senate at the end of this week, the two versions could be brought into alignment quickly - by removing the slots money.

With slots out of the way for this year, the Assembly could commission a careful examination of slot machine gambling and the state's tax structure. With time to study these interlocking issues - slots and taxes - the state might find it doesn't need the corrosive presence of more gambling.

If slots must come - and surely there is a better, more responsible way to deal with the state's financial needs - they ought not to come in a rush through the back door.

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