Governor, officials to make slots case to key committee

Education, development to be stressed in hearing today before House panel

Ways and Means killed 2003 bill

General Assembly

March 30, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. makes a public appeal for legalizing slots today to the House Ways and Means Committee, he must go beyond simply convincing delegates that new gambling revenues are crucial to Maryland's fiscal future.

Ehrlich must also contend with a committee that has repeatedly criticized his slots plan and pledged to rewrite it - if it agrees to vote for any kind of gambling bill at all.

"If we pass something, it will look very different from what the Senate did," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. "We've spent a lot of time looking at this, and we have some other ideas."

The House committee - which defeated the governor's gambling bill last year in a resounding 16-5 vote - prepared a lengthy report during the summer that presents a withering analysis on the type of slots plan proposed by Ehrlich and passed by the Senate.

The committee's report all but dismisses the notion that slot machine licenses should be given to racetracks, arguing that there is little evidence that slots players become fans of horse racing. "Focusing on racetrack locations may not be the best option for expanded gambling in Maryland, whether in terms of revenues to the state or in terms of impacts on residential population centers," committee members wrote.

State ownership of slots facilities is strongly endorsed by the report, with locations recommended along Maryland's borders to cut off the gambling dollars flowing to West Virginia and Delaware. No company should own more than one slots license, according to the report, which calls for a voter referendum on slots, either as a statewide constitutional amendment or in local elections to let residents approve or reject gambling facilities in their home jurisdictions.

The slots plan passed last month by the Senate - a heavily amended version of Ehrlich's initial proposal - would permit 15,500 slot machines at three tracks and three nontrack facilities. One of the three tracks is required to be the one proposed for Allegany County. A single company would be allowed to own up to two racetrack slots licenses, ensuring that Magna Entertainment Corp. could seek expanded gambling at both Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.

"We would be happy to discuss the differences and the different perspectives the governor has," said Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., who will help present the administration's slots proposal to the House committee today.

"We're there to talk about our bill, but if the delegates would like to ask us questions, we'd be pleased to discuss the differences we have," DiPaula said.

Today's hearing will be the second on gambling held by the Ways and Means Committee in a week, but it will be far different from the first.

Last Tuesday, the panel heard almost eight hours of testimony from supporters and opponents, and hundreds of people - mostly opponents - packed the Lowe House Office Building. The hearing today will be what lawmakers call "sponsor only," limited to Ehrlich and a handful of administration officials presenting the plan, Hixson said.

DiPaula, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos are set to speak to the committee, said Ehrlich adviser Paul Schurick.

Grasmick will talk about the importance of gambling funds to meet promised future spending for public schools - fiscal analysts project more than $800 million in state revenues when the slot machines are up and running - and Melissaratos will promote expanded gambling as an economic development tool.

Before the hearing, the governor also is scheduled to speak to a crowd at a pro-slots State House rally, featuring a mix of people from the state Republican Party and supporters of the horse industry.

Hixson said she has also invited Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer to discuss changes made by the Senate to the governor's slots bill. The Howard County Democrat led the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee's efforts to amend Ehrlich's plan.

Last night, more than 400 workers from the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO Unions gathered at the State House with a message arguing for both organized labor and state support of public services.

While some speakers - including Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - endorsed the tax package approved last week by the House, others said the legalization of slots at the tracks will ensure a growth in union jobs.

"Three thousand construction workers will be put to work, and we're talking about another 3,000 jobs at the tracks," said Ernest R. Grecco, president of the council. "Why the hell shouldn't we be talking about slots? But we want them at the tracks."

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