After declaring for months that he would spend no more political capital on the issue, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. restarted his push to legalize slot machines yesterday, this time using the promise of more school construction money to break the legislative logjam that stymied him for the past two years.
Until yesterday, Ehrlich had been ambivalent about trying for a third time to pass his signature initiative, saying he didn't want to see his effort die in the legislature again.
But yesterday he told dozens of local officials and legislators he will budget an extra $100 million a year for school construction if the General Assembly passes slots. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said administration officials have told him the governor will introduce a slots bill with his legislative package, probably within a week.
Ehrlich communications director Paul Schurick said aides are expected to give the governor a detailed proposal for a new slots bill in the next few days, but he wouldn't say whether a final decision has been made to introduce a proposal this year. "He is inclined to right now," Schurick said. "I'm not going to comment until the governor makes a final decision about what he is interested in proposing."
The governor's interest in slot machines appeared as strong as ever yesterday as he pressured elected officials from across the state to lobby for expanded gambling if they want more money for school construction.
Yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting was the "beg-a-thon" in which local officials, usually accompanied by their legislative delegations, make their cases for additional school construction and renovation money. As county after county went to the podium to ask for more funding, Ehrlich promised them more money in the future if the legislature passes slots. "It looked unanimous to me today. Everybody supported slots," Ehrlich said later. "It's amazing."
The current budget, released yesterday, contains $155 million in school construction funding, a 55 percent increase. That's still less than the $250 million a year that a task force headed by State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp is recommending for each of the next eight years.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has been the chief legislative opponent of slot machines, said he is not persuaded by the attempt to link slots to school construction.
"It's a poor commentary on the administration that they constantly want to hold the education of Maryland's children hostage to giving away gaming licenses to four or five wealthy individuals," Busch said. "Quite frankly, one of the wealthiest states in the nation. We're better than that."
But Miller, who is the most powerful slots advocate in the General Assembly, said he thinks the link with school construction could be enough to finally get a bill through the House of Delegates. For the past two years, Miller has shepherded Ehrlich-approved bills through the Senate only to see them die in the House.
Overcrowded and crumbling schools are a hot issue with voters, Miller said.
"Polling for slots at specific locations is well above 50 percent. The numbers would go up to 75 percent or higher if you poll slots at specific locations tied to education and school construction," Miller said. "Everybody can relate to it."
How slots revenue would be used is only one of the potential sticking points to getting a bill through the legislature. Previous efforts have collapsed amid questions over who would profit from gambling, what share of the proceeds would go to the state, how many machines would be allowed and where slots parlors would be located.
Today's pitch was not the first time Ehrlich has tried to pressure local officials into becoming slots lobbyists. Immediately after he was elected, he warned them that they could see aid to local governments slashed if slots didn't pass.
Ehrlich has also previously tied slots to operational funding for schools and, recently, to the health of the Chesapeake Bay by saying slots money would support the horse racing industry, which would ease development pressures on horse farms and thus reduce sprawl. Some slots proponents suggested during the debate over medical malpractice reform that slots revenue could hold down doctors' insurance rates.
School officials at yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting mostly declined judgment when asked about Ehrlich's proposal, saying only that they supported any increase in school funding.
Frederick County Superintendent Linda D. Burgee, from one of the state's fastest-growing districts, said slots "are for the politicians to decide."
But, she added, "If this is the only way we can fund the needs of our children, then I can live with that."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, an outspoken slots opponent and potential Ehrlich rival in 2006, said the governor is reneging on his campaign promise not to link slots to other issues.
"They should debate slots on its own and not hold other things hostage," Duncan said.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, another potential Ehrlich rival, lambasted the governor's plan as a "gambling gimmick."
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, who said she could support slots at the Laurel racetrack under the right conditions, said linking slots to school construction might put tremendous pressure on legislators. But, she said, after the past two years, people are tired of the issue and calcified in their positions. "Will it make a difference?" she said of the governor's pitch. "I wouldn't even place a bet on it."