Ehrlich sees slots in '07

He predicts bill will pass next year if he's re-elected


Ocean City -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. predicted yesterday that slot machine gambling will be legalized next year if he is re-elected.

Speaking to the Maryland Association of Counties annual convention, a traditional venue for governors to deliver major policy addresses, Ehrlich returned to a topic that dominated his first years in office, saying money from slots would pay for additional school construction and renovation, a mounting concern because the state's population is expected to swell in coming years with the national realignment of military personnel.

"I anticipate a school construction budget that will create 21st- century places of learning with the resources necessary to reach every student in the state and a funding source that will pay for it that will pass next year," he said.

A top administration official confirmed that the governor was referring to slots.

The word slots has rarely - if ever - escaped the governor's lips on the campaign trail this year, as he has avoided talking about the signature initiative of his administration, which he was unable to shepherd through the General Assembly.

Yesterday, he made only a single, oblique reference to it in a speech full of facts and figures about the number of acres his administration has preserved (70,000), charter schools established (22), deficits overcome ($4 billion) and surpluses created ($2.3 billion - a new estimate, up from $1.7 billion).

But members of the audience didn't miss it.

"Why do you need slots if you have a $2.3 billion surplus?" said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the governor's nemesis on slots legislation, who attended the speech.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a slots foe, tried to make gambling an issue in the governor's race before dropping out of the Democratic primary, and Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat running for comptroller, has tried to make his opposition a rallying point for members of his party. But Ehrlich's Democratic opponent in November, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, supports a limited number of slots at racetracks to benefit the horse industry, a stance that has effectively removed gambling as an issue from the governor's race.

Instead, Ehrlich has used his campaign to bolster his credentials as a centrist, an important quality for a Republican running in a state that usually votes Democratic. Yesterday's speech was no exception, as he spent most of his address talking to the local government officials in the room about bread-and-butter issues, such as highway bypasses, school funding, wastewater cleanup and growth management.

Ehrlich said he believes population growth as a result of a national realignment of military personnel is going to be the dominant issue in the state in the years ahead. He said that although he has different views about land use than his predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who gained national recognition for his Smart Growth policies, he too wants to plan for new homes, shops and businesses in a way that protects the environment and preserves open space.

Growth is a singular concern of the local government officials represented by the Maryland Association of Counties, and land use is the driving issue in elections for county and municipal offices around the state this year. The governor said his administration is dedicated to helping local officials manage growth, not telling them what to do.

Ehrlich is Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation, and he used his speech yesterday to reassure the audience that his election has produced a focus on results and new approaches to problems, not an abandonment of issues important to average people, such as controlling growth.

"I know there was a degree of trepidation in this room with your group as a result of the last election," Ehrlich said. " ... Fear of the unknown is a well-known psychological condition. You are not alone in your state of anxiety. Members of the arts, social welfare, child welfare communities [were] all asking the questions along the lines of, `What is this guy going to do?'

"Fast-forward almost four years ... to view a strong, respectful, sustained relationship," Ehrlich said.

Maryland Association of Counties President James N. Robey, the Howard County executive and a Democratic candidate for state Senate, said the governor deserves credit for being mindful of the important role local governments play in providing essential services to residents. In previous tough budget times, governors have often balanced their budgets by making steep cuts in aid to local governments, but Ehrlich promised not to during his 2002 campaign.

"We applaud you for honoring your commitment not to impose permanent cuts as part of your budget reconciliation, not resolving the state's fiscal crisis solely on the backs of counties," Robey said.

Ehrlich has said repeatedly on the campaign trail that he wants this election to be about his record of accomplishments, and he said yesterday that his first term has been one of keeping promises.

"We know in our business, words can be real cheap, and commitments made in the heat of a campaign can mean nothing when the reality of holding office occurs," Ehrlich said. "Hopefully, many of you have known me long enough that those fears are dissipating."

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