Delegates at odds over polling on slots

Black Caucus agreed to foot bill, says Rawlings

March 29, 2003|By Ivan Penn and Michael Dresser | Ivan Penn and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus and its related foundation could run into trouble over payment for a $65,000 poll that examined African-American views of legalizing slot machine gambling in the state.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who requested the study, said he had a commitment from Del. Obie Patterson, the caucus' chairman and executive director of the Maryland Black Caucus Foundation, that the organization would foot the bill.

But Rawlings said Patterson reneged yesterday on his promise and could subject the caucus, the foundation and individual lawmakers to legal action by the pollster.

"He has gotten tough [in] the media," Rawlings said of Patterson's announcement that the caucus would not pay for the poll. "We'll see how tough he is in court."

But Patterson said neither the caucus nor its related foundation ever gave an official authorization for the poll by Washington-based Penn Schoen and Berland Associates, which couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.

"I can't say who did. The caucus did not," the Prince George's County Democrat said. "The caucus has not made a request for a poll and therefore we're not making any payment."

The poll showed that most African-Americans in the state's 10 majority-black legislative districts support legalizing slot machine gambling at racetracks in Baltimore and Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. African-American lawmakers are expected to play a critical role in determining whether the legislature passes a bill to legalize slots this year because they make up a sizable voting bloc in Annapolis.

The caucus' split over the slots poll occurred as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. continued searching for the right formula to pass the legislation through the House, where Speaker Michael E. Busch has it boxed in.

One delegate who met with the governor said Ehrlich had agreed to make an important concession that would delay slot machines: allowing residents in the vicinity of the tracks to accept or reject them in a referendum.

That proposal could help ease the rising tension over the slots issue.

During a meeting yesterday, members of the Black Caucus rejected calls by Rawlings supporters for the caucus to pay for the poll because they said the request did not go through the proper channels.

In addition, several lawmakers said they had legal and ethical concerns about whether an organization run by lawmakers should conduct such activities during the legislative session. These questions, Rawlings said, led to Patterson's backing away from the poll.

Sen. Verna L. Jones, second vice chairwoman of the caucus, said she was never consulted about the poll and believed it was an issue for the foundation to decide. She is not an officer.

But the Baltimore Democrat defended Rawlings. "I don't think Pete would go off and do something that is inappropriate," Jones said.

Rawlings said the issue should never have become as complicated as it has. Besides having a commitment from Patterson, Rawlings said he and others had the Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics and the attorney general's office review legal and ethical issues before initiating the poll.

The ethics committee informed the caucus in January that its nonprofit foundation could conduct fund-raising activities during the session "so long as members of the General Assembly are not involved in the solicitation of contributions from individual regulated lobbyists."

William Somerville, the legislature's legal counsel, added that he believes the caucus' foundation could pay for the poll without violating ethics law. "My impression is the foundation taking a poll of community opinion on a legislative issue for the purpose of educating the General Assembly is a valid activity," he said.

The debate over the poll created yet another obstacle for the slots proposal, which the governor is struggling to get through the legislature.

Ehrlich's apparent movement on a local referendum was reported by Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat from Howard County who said the governor agreed to the proposal during a recent meeting between the two.

An agreement by Ehrlich to allow local voting would be a return to the position he articulated during the campaign but abandoned after the election.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the idea was under consideration but noted that holding a referendum would delay the flow of revenue into public education.

Busch dismissed the idea of a local vote as "unworkable."

"You've got to have a statewide referendum and a constitutional amendment," he said.

Staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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