Gilchrest to testify against slots bill

Republican congressman will break party ranks to protect state's `legacy'

Temporary taxes recommended

General Assembly

March 21, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, one of Maryland's leading Republicans, will testify this week in opposition to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machines proposal, the centerpiece of the GOP administration's solution to the state's fiscal crisis.

Although Gilchrest has long opposed expanded gambling, his decision to publicly speak out in opposition to the governor represents a coup for slots opponents.

"We think this is a measure of the lack of support that slots has cutting across all party lines," said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist representing a coalition of anti-slots groups. "It reinforces the evidence that people are coming out against slots and that even people who want slots don't want them in their neighborhoods."

A spokesman for the governor, visibly angered on Friday when informed of Gilchrest's plans to testify before the House of Delegates, had little comment.

"We have thoughts that we don't care to share publicly," said Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick.

"The future of the state of Maryland is in our hands," Gilchrest wrote in an opinion piece published in today's Sun. "We should not allow slots into our communities in order to permit governing to be easy and expedient just for the moment."

In an interview, Gilchrest acknowledged that his decision is sure to upset the Republican governor and his administration. At the beginning of this month, when Gilchrest was locked in a GOP primary against state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, the state Republican party paid for a mailing that featured pictures of Gilchrest and Ehrlich. The party's "incumbent-protection" policy angered Colburn, who didn't think the last-minute gubernatorial endorsement mailing was fair.

The Maryland Senate passed a heavily amended version of Ehrlich's bill last month, permitting up to 15,500 slot machines at six locations. Legislative analysts project it could raise more than $800 million a year in state revenues when all of the machines are up and running.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which defeated the governor's slots proposal last year, is set to hold hearings on most gambling legislation Tuesday. The bill passed by the Senate won't have a hearing until March 30, but the committee will permit only the governor's staff to testify on that measure -- leaving this week as the time for gambling supporters and opponents to turn out.

In addition to Gilchrest, the executives of Montgomery and Prince George's counties are expected to testify in opposition to the plan.

Maryland's other Republican congressman, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, opposes slots on moral grounds, but he has chosen to remain silent during the state debate. During the Maryland Senate debate on slots, the Republicans who oppose gambling for moral or religious reasons refrained from speaking out.

"You try to weigh and balance the friendships, politics and party on one side, and on the other side you put slot machines and my heartfelt opinion of the degradation that they cause, the ruined lives, the added crime, the dark side of politics," Gilchrest said. "It's not the legacy that Maryland wants, not by any means.

"I've been in a lot of places where there are slot machines, and you see a community of ghosts in those areas. Hollow ghosts. I just don't want that to happen to Maryland," said the congressman, who has represented Maryland's 1st District since 1990.

The governor, who has vowed to veto any increase in the sales or income taxes, says the revenues from slot machines are crucial to fulfill the state's 2002 commitment to major funding increases for public schools, commonly known as the Thornton legislation. Without that money, Ehrlich has warned that he will be forced to make deep cuts to all other areas of the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2005.

Gilchrest argued that Maryland should not be turning to gambling to pay for basic obligations. "What will happen next time the state budget is in crisis if we rely on slots revenues this time? Will gambling in the state be expanded ever further?" Gilchrest wrote in the opinion piece.

The congressman suggested that if the governor and lawmakers continue their efforts to streamline the budget, Marylanders would be willing to consider some additional taxes, if only temporarily.

"The governor is doing a good job in looking at the budget in total, seeing where efficiencies can be made," Gilchrest said. "A contribution from the citizens of Maryland, specifically targeted to sewage treatment plants, to the Thornton Commission, to transportation, to Medicaid. ... The residents of Maryland are willing to make an extra contribution without having gambling as our legacy."

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