The Carroll County Chamber of Commerce has expressed conditional support for legalizing slot machines in Maryland as the governor prepares to introduce a gambling bill during this year's General Assembly, which begins Wednesday.
The chamber, which revealed its legislative agenda to the Carroll County delegation on Friday, said it would back "carefully regulated slot machines in limited locations to fund public education as an alternative revenue source."
A costly state initiative, known as the Thornton Plan, which would add $1.3 billion yearly in spending for public schools, is one education program that could be funded by revenues from slot machines, said Chamber President Bonnie J. Grady.
"The biggest concern with Thornton is funding," Grady said. "Any mandate without a funding mechanism causes us concern."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. confirmed last week that he would introduce legislation to legalize slot machines. A proposal to allow slots at racetracks was passed last year by the Senate but killed by the House of Delegates.
The governor's budget director said last week that implementation of the Thornton Plan would have to be drastically altered without money from gambling.
Support for allowing slot machines in Maryland was one of several issues the chamber presented to five of the seven members of the Carroll County delegation at a breakfast meeting in Westminster.
On topics such as curbing state spending, reducing costs for unemployment insurance, and finding state funds for the often-discussed Hampstead and Westminster bypass roads, Carroll's state legislators told three dozen chamber members that they want to work with them to accomplish those goals.
"The Carroll County delegation is the most business-friendly in the state," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican representing Carroll and Howard counties.
Members of the all-Republican delegation also discussed some of their own initiatives for this year's legislative session, including measures to curb escalating costs for malpractice claims and a proposal to give local school boards more control over implementing full-day kindergarten.
"We mostly agree philosophically on everything," said Del. Susan Krebs, pointing to her colleagues. The question is "how do we make it happen?"
The issue of slot machines in Maryland was raised during a brief question-and-answer session. Barry Potts, president of the Carroll County Education Association, wondered how the state would pay for the costly Thornton Plan if gambling legislation fails again this year.
"What measures would you support if slots don't succeed?" Potts asked.
Sen. David R. Brinkley, who represents Carroll and Frederick counties, said revenue from slot machines is not the only solution to pay for Thornton.
"I advocate the extension of Thornton whether or not we get slots ... and get rid of all-day kindergarten for areas that don't need it," said Brinkley, who voted in favor of the gambling legislation last year.
Sen. Larry E. Haines, who represents parts of Baltimore County, said after the meeting that he supports rolling back the education plan. Haines, who voted against the gambling legislation last year, said he's still morally opposed to gambling.
"The only way it could be done is to delay the full implementation," Haines said of the Thornton plan. "If slots were passed, revenue won't be generated in time."
Other items on the chamber's agenda include encouraging economic development, making workers' compensation insurance affordable, and increasing funding for the state's agricultural preservation program.
The meeting "gave the delegation a better understanding of our issues, and it has given them a chance to go into this session knowing where we stand," Grady said.
The chamber's agenda "is like a Christmas wish-list," she said. "We realize we can't accomplish everything in a single year. We'll continue to work with the delegation."