Ehrlich reverses slots stance, to push bill regardless of Busch

Senate president request noted as factor in decision even if speaker isn't for it

December 18, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Reversing a long-held position, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he will likely return to the General Assembly with a slots-at-racetracks plan next month even if House Speaker Michael E. Busch doesn't support it.

Ehrlich had pledged for months not to reintroduce slots legislation unless Busch - who led an effort to kill the governor's plan this year - dropped his opposition to the initiative.

Even though the speaker's reluctance shows little signs of eroding, Ehrlich said he is yielding to the wishes of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who, like the governor, wants a gambling plan to help solve the state's budget shortfall.

"I talked to President Miller last Friday," Ehrlich said yesterday. "He asked us to put a bill in. We will most likely do so."

"The question is, what occurs next?" the governor continued, adding that he will not accept a bill that ties slots to an increase in sales or income taxes, as some Democrats want.

"If it is linked to a major tax increase, it will free me up to work on other initiatives," Ehrlich said. "If it is going to be debated on its own merits, we will spend political capital to get it passed."

The House Ways and Means Committee spent the summer studying the gambling issue, and a subcommittee will meet today to begin drafting findings. But Ehrlich administration officials appear increasingly frustrated that Busch has not spelled out what - if any - components of a gambling plan are acceptable to him.

"We've all given him a lot of time," said state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. "The time is now for the speaker to decide how he would like to move forward."

For months, Busch and House members have explored various ideas for slots, including state-built facilities away from racetracks that would limit what Busch sees as an unjust enrichment of track owners.

But it seemed unlikely yesterday that many of those ideas would be incorporated in an administration plan.

DiPaula said the governor's bill would be "the same or very similar" to legislation approved by the Senate this year, which authorized 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland tracks, designating the state's share of the proceeds to public education.

"The more complex this gets, the more appealing that looks," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director. "What could be simpler: slots at racetracks?"

Miller said yesterday that he agrees with Busch that slots are not the best choice to help fill projected budget deficits. But he said that because Ehrlich is rejecting tax increases, lawmakers have no other alternative.

Gambling critics reacted harshly to Ehrlich's reversal yesterday, saying the governor appears unwilling to compromise or change his views.

Ehrlich hasn't done the homework, said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, to produce an effective slots plan.

"It was poorly presented last session, and at end of the session he was saying he was not going to put another bill in," Franchot said. "Any other governor would have rolled his sleeves up and really worked on the details. There are no details. It's just a hash. It's as if we were in a political campaign, not a legislative arena."

Meeting yesterday with The Sun editorial board, Busch said "the responsible thing to do would be to forget about slots."

But he said he may be willing to accept some form of slots legislation if it is part of a comprehensive solution to the state's budget problem. The $10 billion-plus state operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 contains a shortfall of more than $700 million, a gap projected to grow to $1.2 billion for the next year.

State officials received their first piece of good budget news in years yesterday, when the Board of Revenue Estimates reported that revenues from income and sales taxes, the lottery and other sources would grow by 4.5 percent for next year's budget.

While the figure was in line with expectations and will not alter the deficit projection, officials said they saw signs that the economy had turned the corner.

"I think there's an upbeat," said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the state's tax collector. "Everywhere you go in the state, people feel good."

Sun staff writers Greg Garland and Jon Morgan contributed to this article.

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