Pro-slots forces rally pre-hearing support

GOP, unions, horsemen to stage events in capital as House considers issue

General Assembly

March 27, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's pro-slots forces are trying to whip up public support in anticipation of Tuesday's hearing on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gambling bill, planning to showcase horsemen, union workers and Republicans.

A coalition of labor unions is planning to stage a rally with hundreds of workers in front of the State House on Monday night, arguing that slots at tracks bring economic development and good jobs.

"The main thrust of our perspective on this is to make sure that if a slots bill passes, that it is structured in a way that will create good jobs," said Nicholas Weiner, senior research analyst with the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions.

On Tuesday, just before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing, the state's Republican Party anticipates that about 300 supporters of the governor will rally to show delegates that the majority of Marylanders want slots.

"Sometimes politics makes strange bedfellows," said Joe Cluster, political director for the Maryland Republican Party, whose rally is organized separately from the union event.

And members of the horse industry are planning to pour into Annapolis on Tuesday in support of the plan, with horse vans and trailers expected to drive in circles around the State House.

The effort to step up public displays of support for slot machines comes as anti-gambling groups have turned out huge crowds in opposition to Ehrlich's plan.

Last month, the Senate passed a heavily amended version of the governor's slots plan to permit 15,500 slot machines at three Maryland tracks and three nontrack locations. The House committee held its first gambling hearing this week and will accept testimony from Ehrlich administration officials Tuesday on the governor's plan.

Anti-slots scene

Hundreds of slots opponents - church groups, children from private religious schools and others - spent hours filling the hallways of the Lowe House Office Building during this week's hearing. Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. described the scene as "bedlam," noting that it was so crowded he couldn't track down his clients to testify when their bills were up for hearings.

"We have fervent believers attending every hearing, and we'll be certain to show up at all future hearings on slots," said W. Minor Carter, lobbyist for a coalition of anti-slots groups.

But slots supporters point to voter polls suggesting that Marylanders back legalizing slot machines at racetracks. In January's Maryland Poll for The Sun, Bethesda-based Potomac Inc. found 52 percent of registered voters support allowing slots in the state, while 39 percent oppose it.

"We felt that last Tuesday the anti-slots people were out in force, but they're a minority of citizens in this state," Cluster said. "We want to mobilize a few troops, have them come out and show some delegates who are on the fence with the vote that there are people who care about slots."

The party has sent e-mail to at least 11,000 people, urging them to join the party for a rally at noon in Lawyers Mall. "We didn't want to make this a huge, elaborate rally. We want to show that normal working people want slots in our state," Cluster said.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has also issued an Internet "Action Alert" calling on its members to urge their lawmakers to back slots.

AFL-CIO to rally

And the night before this week's crucial House hearing, the AFL-CIO will hold its annual rally in front of the State House. Union members have typically focused on such issues as collective bargaining legislation under consideration by the General Assembly.

But much of this year's attention will be on slots. At earlier hearings on gambling in both the House and Senate, Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO President Fred D. Mason Jr. testified in favor of the governor's plan. He has emphasized the union jobs at the tracks and the possibility that expanded gambling could bring more economic development.

"Track workers are concerned about their future, and depending on what happens, their jobs could be in jeopardy if the tracks are excluded in a final slots package," Weiner said. He said the union isn't opposing the tax plan approved Thursday by the House but believes a combination of slots and taxes is the best approach.

Assembly on Baltimoresun.com

Learn the names of your representatives, how they voted on bills and how to contact them and how to register to vote.

Read the text of proposed legislation, including the Senate slots bill, SB 197; the flush tax, HB 292; the budget bill, SB 125.

Review Sun coverage of the General Assembly, and contact the writers.

www.baltimoresun.com/assembly

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