Ehrlich's slots plan comes out for Round 3

Nothing new is in bill from past 2, senator says

Governor, Miller urge passage

General Assembly

February 10, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,STAFF WRITER

The arguments were familiar, the characters the same - but the opponents of slot machines were scarce at a hearing yesterday on the latest proposal to legalize slots in Maryland.

For the third consecutive year, members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee listened to nearly three hours of testimony on a slots bill, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan that would open Maryland to slot machines and give the state $800 million a year.

Leading the charge were Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who introduced it on behalf of the administration - and has vowed to shepherd a slots bill through his chamber again this year, on its way to an uncertain future in the House of Delegates.

"This was the third time we've heard the bill, and we didn't hear anything new," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat and chairman of the committee. "I think it will pass again this year.

Currie said the committee likely will vote on the bill tomorrow. It is expected to pass the committee and full Senate, leaving its fate in the hands of the House, where it has died the past two years.

The House Ways and Means Committee scheduled a hearing Wednesday, and anti-slots advocates said they would save their voices for then.

Appearing together before the committee, Ehrlich and Miller argued that the lack of legalized slots in Maryland has cost Maryland dollars and jobs to surrounding states where slots are allowed.

"My presence here demonstrates that this is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue," said Miller. "It's a people issue."

Ehrlich's proposal would allow 15,500 slot machines at six locations: four at horse racetracks and two along the Interstate 95 corridor.

In addition to stressing the benefits to the horse-racing industry, Ehrlich highlighted his new pitch to dedicate $100 million of the money generated from slots to school construction annually. He also stressed the open space that would be saved by preserving horse farms and by preventing "inappropriate development in the outer suburbs."

"The message needs to get out that the state of Maryland really does care about agriculture," Ehrlich said. "The state of Maryland really does care about horse racing. ... The state of Maryland really does care abut keeping its Preakness. The state of Maryland really does care about school construction. And the state of Maryland really does care about adult Marylanders making adult decisions."

State Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. testified that the money generated from slots would go to fully fund the Thornton plan, the state's landmark education funding plan. Ehrlich's fiscal 2006 budget proposal did not include aid to counties with higher costs of living or more special-needs students.

A wide range of slots supporters also backed the bill, including Louis Angelos, the son of Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, whose family is negotiating to buy Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, and William Rickman Jr., a Montgomery County developer.

Rickman testified that although his planned track in Allegany County - which would get slots under the bill - is his priority, he also wants to see slots at his Ocean Downs harness track.

"I think it's important to serve the entire industry, not just parts of it," said Rickman.

Horse trainers and other employees affiliated with Ocean Downs spoke in favor of slots, some saying they would be forced to move if the state doesn't pass a bill.

And Dennis McCoy, a lobbyist for the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said members of that group would like to see the bill amended to give them more money.

The bill faces stiff opposition in the House. Speaker Michael E. Busch repeatedly has said that linking slots to school construction is holding the state's schoolchildren hostage and has not backed down from his anti-slots stance this session.

Speaking on behalf of Stop Slots Maryland, an anti-slots coalition, was lobbyist W. Minor Carter, who argued that introducing slots to the state would only hurt the economy and help out-of-state companies.

"Gambling doesn't achieve anything," Carter said. "All it does is take your money."

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