Gambling support led by practical concerns

Budget crisis demands resolution, legislators say

Howard County

March 05, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's Republican Del. Gail H. Bates and Democrat Del. Elizabeth Bobo don't often agree, but they're both strongly opposed to slot machine gambling in Maryland - though for different reasons.

"I'm a Southern Baptist. We believe that people should make a living by the work of their hands," said Bates, who said fellow Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has been very understanding about her religious objections to gambling.

Bobo's reasons are secular.

"I think it's the worst public policy proposal I've ever seen in Annapolis. It's a ridiculous way to balance the budget" and "bad for the people in Maryland," Bobo said.

But practical concerns outweigh Bates' and Bobo's singularly strong beliefs for most of Howard's 11 legislators, who support slots legislation, or at least don't oppose it outright, as the annual General Assembly session moves closer to a climax on the gambling issue.

The House delegation chairman, Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, said he,is philosophically opposed to slots. But if a slots bill is tied to some other revenue source that would fix the state's structural budget shortfall, "it will be a lot harder to vote against," he said.

Many take a strictly practical approach, regardless of party.

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller favors slots because "our backs are against the wall" to get money for education and balance the budget while avoiding tax increases. Del. James E. Malone Jr. agreed, though he wants funding for transportation, too. Still, "I'm not going to vote for a bad bill," he said.

His Catonsville-Elkridge district mate and fellow Democrat, Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., a retired Baltimore County police officer, feels the same way. But DeBoy, like others, expects some of that revenue to pay for gambling's ills - such as addictions treatment and law enforcement.

All three Howard state senators voted for the slots proposal that was approved on a 27-18 vote Friday. But State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, their chairman, said he is no fan of legal gambling.

"If I could repeal the laws in West Virginia and Delaware for slots, I probably would have voted against it," the western county Republican said.

"But the decision isn't anymore, `Do you want slots?' The decision is, `Do you want the revenue or let the other states get the revenue?' " he said.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents parts of western Baltimore and eastern Howard counties, said he, too, is reluctant to fund education reform via gambling, but he doesn't see a credible alternative.

"I think in the Senate leadership we believe the governor when he says he will not support any new tax effort." Without other taxes - like higher income taxes for high income residents - budget cuts would be severe because of the state's structural deficit. "You've got to balance the budget," he said.

State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican whose southeastern County district abuts Laurel Park, one of the racetracks virtually certain to get thousands of slots machines if they are approved, said she is doing what she heard voters wanted.

During her election campaign in 2002, "the overwhelming majority said they are fine with slots. Senior citizens were very enthusiastic," she said, because they travel to neighboring states to play slots.

Put another way, voters want slots rather than higher taxes on everyone, she said.

But Schrader's District 13 delegates - all Democrats - have major doubts.

Del. Shane Pendergrass said "the devil's in the details for me." And she wants a two-tiered public referendum in November on any slots proposal. If the public votes for slots, she said, any area where the issue lost would be exempted from having the machines.

Among her constituents, she said, people don't want slots because they like gambling. They would just rather have slots than a general tax increase, she said.

Her colleague, Del. Neil F. Quinter, said he hasn't made up his mind, though he sees more negatives than positives. He, too, wants a way for specific areas to opt out of having slots.

County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, said he supports the Maryland Association of Counties' position favoring slots "as long as it's part of the plan to fix the state's budget problems." He's not lobbying the county's delegation, however.

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