Turner's new post puts him at center of slots legislation

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

January 14, 2007|By Larry Carson

The ever-sensitive slot machine issue will be Howard Del. Frank S. Turner's baby in this year's House of Delegates, thanks to the House speaker, Del. Michael E. Busch.

Turner, a four-term Democrat who is no fan of slots, is chairman of the innocent-sounding Finance Resource subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee. That means any bills having to do with gambling, horse racing or the lottery must pass muster with his subcommittee before they can proceed.

"The speaker felt very comfortable with me taking over that area," said Turner.

"Frank is a veteran legislator and understands the process," Busch said. "I thought we needed a fresh look at all of it. He's really the perfect choice."

Turner, like Busch, is no gambling booster, but he said he is willing to be flexible, given a looming revenue shortfall in Maryland. The speaker gave him no specific marching orders, he said.

Busch agreed.

"I don't expect everybody to reflect my philosophy," he said.

Turner explained his views on gambling.

"I just think there's a better way, another way of doing it. I want to create high-paying jobs," Turner said about his personal position on using gambling to boost state revenues.

"But it's not just about me and what I want," Turner said.

"We saw that Pennsylvania brought it [casino gambling] in recently, and Maryland is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall next year. Maybe it [gambling] will be part of a package - maybe not.

"We've got to fix the budget," he said.

Any gambling proposal is fraught with complex issues, including locations, revenue splits and the number of machines.

He is expecting a number of gambling-related bills during the just-begun 90-day session, and the subcommittee is not just about slots.

"We can help the horse racing industry and the lottery, too," he said.

Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said the new post is a promotion for Turner. "It means that the speaker and the committee chairman can rely on him to do what they want him to do," he said.

With Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. soon to be gone, Miller felt the chances for slots may improve.

"My feeling is that we're going to get the new revenue they want via slots - that's a much easier vote than massive tax increases," he said.

Big Apple on agenda

The new Howard County Council members are a curious group - eager to learn about every detail of government, even if they have to go to New York to do it.

Howard officials make an annual pilgrimage to the Big Apple to preserve the county's AAA bond rating with presentations to the three bond-rating firms.

Normally, the county executive, budget and finance officials, and - for the past 15 years - County Council chairman have made the trip.

But at their second monthly meeting last week, several council members expressed interest in going on this year's trip next month.

"I'm fascinated by the concept of only one council member going," west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty said. "It is again an opportunity for learning. Those opportunities are valuable."

Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said, "It might be useful to have more council members up there," and maybe someone representing the Board of Education, too.

The trip is financed out of fees generated by county bond sales, so the expense is not directly borne by taxpayers, officials said.

"We're all new to this. It would be learning experience," Watson said.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said the county executive decides who to invite on the trip. The idea, he said, is to present a unified view of Howard County's stability and financial prospects to keep the coveted bond rating. Having the AAA rating enables the county to sell bonds at the lowest interest rate available, saving taxpayers money over time.

"Before 1991, only the executive and top administration fiscal officials went on the trip," Ball said.

Eight years ago, then newly elected County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, invited his predecessor, Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, to go to New York. Last year, Robey invited both council members who were candidates for county executive - then-Republican Chairman Christopher J. Merdon and Democrat Ken Ulman, who ultimately won the election.

A spokesman for Ulman said he planned to take the council chairman, but not the other members.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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