Publicly owned slot sites weighed

By A Sun Staff Writer

As a legislative committee embarked yesterday on the latest study of the divisive issue of gambling, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the panel will consider the construction of publicly owned slots emporiums.

Such facilities, said Busch, who almost single-handedly derailed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s racetrack-based gambling plan this year, would limit the involvement of track owners and other gambling and racing interests, who pumped $2.4 million into an unsuccessful lobbying effort to bring more gaming to Maryland.

"I don't see why the state can't have maximum control," said Busch, adding that the Maryland Stadium Authority could build facilities and contract out operations.

"Then, you don't have a long-term relationship where if there's a problem, you're locked into something," he said. "That's going to be a significant part of what we [on the committee] do."

The speaker said slots facilities "shouldn't be in the middle of communities," such as the Pimlico neighborhood in Baltimore, where one would have been located had the governor's plan to install the machines at and other tracks been adopted.

Good locations, he said, would be akin to those of the state's minor league baseball parks in Aberdeen, Bowie, Frederick and the Eastern Shore -- remote spots that can accommodate crowds without impacting neighborhoods.

Busch's comments came shortly after the House Ways and Means Committee met for the first in a series of summer meetings to study an expansion of gambling.

While little was accomplished except to set a timetable for sessions, the meeting reinforced the fact that the issues that consumed policymakers for much of the past year -- whether and how slot machines should be legalized to provide money for state operations -- are not going away.

The prospect of hundreds of millions in gambling proceeds is looking more enticing to lawmakers as the Ehrlich administration prepares to announce budget cuts of up to $500 million to the budget that takes effect July 1. Ehrlich has said he wants a head start on closing a budget gap of up to $1 billion expected in the following year's spending plan, which would start in July 2004.

Greg Massoni, a spokesman for the governor, said this week that cuts to agencies would range from 4 percent to as high as 13 percent. He would not specify the reductions.

Ehrlich said the plan he presented to the General Assembly this year would have eventually generated more than $700 million a year for the state through 11,500 slot machines at Maryland racetracks. But under Busch's leadership, the House of Delegates rejected the plan amid questions over community impact and how to split the proceeds. House members voted for a study instead.

"It's a waste of time," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a slots supporter. The issue has been examined many times in the past, he said, and the time for action has come.

Miller repeated his call yesterday for a special legislative session this year to address gambling issues. "If we wait until the next session of the General Assembly, you increase the chances for defeat," he said.

Ehrlich shrugged off the work of the committee, which is scheduled to meet through October.

"This is what the speaker wants to do," he said.

The governor refused to say whether he would accept a gambling plan that includes state-owned slot machines located away from racetracks.

"I'm not going to answer any questions like that until and if the speaker comes to the administration with something he can support," Ehrlich said.

Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat who is heading the study, said she had participated in five previous reviews of gambling.

Asked what she expected to learn from her sixth effort, which includes four daylong site visits and public hearings, she replied: "I'll know that the governor said people gave him a mandate for slots, and we'll see if that's true."

Yesterday's meeting was attended by the lobbyists and slots opponents who have traversed the State House in recent months on behalf of their cause.

"There are a lot of votes for slots generically," said Minor Carter, who has served as a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-slots groups. "The question is whether there are votes for a specific plan. There are fundamental questions to be asked and answered."

Those questions include whether slots should be legalized, and if so, where they should be located and who should run them.

Hixson said the committee would work from Ehrlich's proposal, as well as a revised slots plan adopted by the Senate, as a starting point for the recommendations the committee issues this year.

"Maybe it will be just slots at the tracks. Maybe it will be broader. Maybe it will be nothing at all," she said.

Important funding decisions hang in the balance. Some top lawmakers say that without revenue from slots, the state cannot afford a $1.3 billion funding commitment to public schools made last year, under a program named after the Thornton Commission, which studied equity in education funding.

"Without slots, Thornton goes by the wayside. That's a given," said Miller, the Senate president.

But Hixson said her committee would also consider earmarking a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for schools, perhaps coupling the tax with a gambling bill -- making it more difficult for Ehrlich to reject. The same strategy was widely discussed during this year's session, but Ehrlich said he would veto any tax bill.

Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said yesterday that the governor has not wavered in his opposition to tax increases. "The governor has said many a time that sales and income taxes are off the table," DeLeaver said. "Those words are no less a reality today then they were at the end of the legislative session."

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