Busch rebuffs latest Ehrlich slots proposal

Plan not `comprehensive' solution to budget problems, speaker says

School funding still in question

Reviews split elsewhere in legislature on putting state-run sites along I-95

General Assembly

January 28, 2004|By David Nitkin and Greg Garland | David Nitkin and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

House Speaker Michael E. Busch rebuffed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s revised gambling plan yesterday, saying the House of Delegates should not approve slot machines without a full remedy to state budget problems that would include raising taxes.

"If it's not a comprehensive solution, why take up the issue of slots?" Busch said, adding that he didn't mind being criticized as an obstructionist - an accusation levied by the governor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller when the governor's slots bill died in the House last year.

Ehrlich, who has vowed not to raise taxes, portrayed himself yesterday as open to compromise on slots. His evidence: the proposal he released Monday that would allow two free-standing slots palaces along the Interstate 95 corridor. The idea was included in a bill that would generate gambling money for the state budget, through 11,500 machines at racetracks and 4,000 at off-track locations.

The concept should ease Busch's concerns about enriching only racetrack owners, Ehrlich said.

"It clearly was an accommodation to the speaker," the governor said in an interview yesterday. "We'll clearly maintain flexibility."

But Busch said that the governor's plan was riddled with questions and provided only a partial answer to funding public schools.

"I think I'm trying to do the responsible thing," Busch said. "As big as those guys are, I don't think they are going to intimidate me."

Elsewhere in the legislature, reviews were mixed yesterday on Ehrlich's latest plan to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland.

Opponents dismissed the proposal as a rehash of last year's bill, saying it again unjustly enriches a small group of wealthy businessmen.

"Basically, it's the same proposal as last year except for adding two more sites," said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-slots groups.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said Ehrlich's proposal will be "subject to all the legitimate criticisms [from last year] of being a golden payoff to track owners."

Some slots supporters said Ehrlich's latest plan for two new sites away from racetracks could pose problems.

"When you leave the location up in the air, it hurts slots," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the Howard County Democrat who served as floor leader for last year's gambling bill. "My position will be working against this strategy of locating these sites along I-95. It helps to defeat the bill."

But others said Ehrlich's move might help gain votes in the General Assembly.

"There was a strong feeling that we had to look at locations other than just tracks," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat. "The perception in the minds of the public and press was that we were giving money to the greedy racetrack owners. If we open it up, maybe that will help."

As lawmakers launch into a debate over where slots facilities should be located if they are legalized, the governor's plan provides more questions than answers.

Ehrlich says a panel controlled by his appointees should choose two non-racetrack locations in any of Cecil, Harford, Baltimore, Howard or Prince George's counties or Baltimore City.

While some of those areas would oppose slots, others might welcome them.

"I think you're looking at Prince George's, Baltimore City and the upper Eastern Shore" as the most likely locations, said Miller.

Although some political figures - including Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn - are pushing for a full casino in Prince George's - Currie said yesterday that he sees little chance of that happening.

"I think it's almost impossible to get a bill with full-blown casinos," Currie said. "It will be difficult enough to do with just slots."

A spokesman for Ehrlich said the governor is open to negotiations on his slots bill but that "deal killers" would be full casinos with table games, slot machines at Ocean Downs or a bill that links slots with any increase in sales or income tax rates.

A competing blueprint for slots issued yesterday - and shaped largely by Busch - calls for any slots dens to be owned by the state and constructed by the Maryland Stadium Authority. It also severs the link Ehrlich has tried to forge between slots and racing.

The product of a six-month study, the report sets guidelines for what it sees as the best way to launch a slots program if the General Assembly decides to expand gambling. The draft report does not endorse slots; a final version will be released tomorrow.

The House Ways and Means Committee report reflects Busch's view that slots should be considered separately from how to help the state's horse racing industry.

"During the course of its study, the committee has determined that the relationship between video lottery gaming and horse racing is tenuous at best," the report says. It notes that slots players do not cross over to become horse racing fans.

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