Ehrlich seems to convince GOP on slots

Governor appears to have strong support in survey

`I don't think we have a choice'

Legalization, higher taxes, budget cuts called options

November 23, 2003|By Greg Garland and David Nitkin | Greg Garland and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appears to have won the solid backing of Republican lawmakers - once a reliable bloc opposed to gambling expansion - for efforts to legalize slot machines.

About three-quarters of Republican legislators who responded to a survey by The Sun say they are prepared to vote to legalize slots to raise money for the state treasury.

Ehrlich has persuaded his fellow Republicans to view the issue as a stark choice among legalizing slots, raising taxes or taking a meat ax to the budget.

"I don't think we have a choice," said Del. Susan K. McComas of Harford County. "We can't keep taxing the population."

In the past, Republican legislators have opposed expansion of gambling. In 1995, the full House Republican caucus vowed to vote as a bloc against efforts to legalize casino-style gambling in Maryland.

"Frankly, this was not a difficult decision for most of us," Del. Robert H. Kittleman, then the caucus chairman, said at the time. "Our instincts ran strongly against gambling from the start."

Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, is still in the legislature - now as a senator - but says times have changed and that he favors legalizing slots. He noted the state's budget woes and said that approving slots is better than the alternative of raising taxes.

Getting most Republicans on board for slots would satisfy one of the demands of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has said a slots initiative will go nowhere unless the governor delivers his own party.

"We're not sending all the Democrats out to make tough votes that they [Republicans] are going to sit on the sidelines for," said Busch, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County.

Busch, who says he thinks expanding gambling is bad public policy, conceded that strong support from Republican legislators will increase chances of a slots bill passing when lawmakers reconvene in January.

"The more members from his party that are for it obviously gives it a greater strength," he said.

Support for slots among Republican lawmakers when the General Assembly meets next year has never been a given. Many politically active religious and social conservatives adamantly oppose opening the door to casino-style gambling.

Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland and a Republican, said she is dismayed that Republican legislators who were reliable allies in the past have had a change of heart on slots since Ehrlich's election last year.

"Whatever Ehrlich says, they do," she said. "It's disgusting to me. Most of these people were a solid bloc opposed to slot machines."

Ehrlich made slots the centerpiece of his legislative agenda this year. It passed the Senate on a close vote but died in the House. He has signaled that he is willing to work toward a compromise with Busch and House Democrats to get a slots bill passed.

The governor says allowing slots emporiums with as many as 3,500 machines each at selected sites would generate as much as $750 million a year for the state treasury and help solve the state's budget problems.

Of the 57 Republican lawmakers who were contacted by The Sun, 34 responded that they would vote to legalize slots and nine said they would vote against any slots measure. Eleven others did not respond to messages, and three were undecided.

Ehrlich is "in a position of strength, in that he's got his own party behind him and the Senate president on board," said Kevin Igoe, a Republican strategist and consultant.

"The people who are between a rock and hard place are the liberal Democrats in the House, who, if they continue to oppose the governor's slots plan, are going to see more budget cuts to the programs that their constituencies want," Igoe said.

Republican legislators say they also are concerned about further budget cuts if slots legislation is not approved next year.

"We're getting down to the bone," said Del. David G. Boschert of Anne Arundel County.

A slots opponent in the past, Boschert voted this year to reject Ehrlich's slots plan in favor of further study of the issue of expanding gambling.

But he said he is ready to "reluctantly" vote for slots to avoid further cuts or raising taxes.

Many Republican legislators said their support is conditional.

Some, including Boschert, said slots money would have to be dedicated to education spending. Others said they would not vote for a slots bill if it was linked to tax increases or if slots emporiums would be built at locations other than the state's horse racing tracks.

"If it is anywhere beside the racetracks, no," said Del. D. Page Elmore, whose district includes Somerset County and part of Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore. "I'm not in favor of seeing major gaming spread across the entire state."

Sen. John J. Hafer of Allegany County said he also favors slots at racetracks only, as Ehrlich proposed this year.

He said he sees moves by Busch to expand slots to sites other than racetracks - possibly in publicly owned facilities - as a "poison pill" that is intended to kill slots legislation.

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