Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has told the leaders of the state's powerful teachers union that they need to support a November referendum to legalize slot machine gambling or be prepared for severe cuts in education funding.
The board of the Maryland State Teachers Association will hold a monthly meeting today and is poised to vote on whether to endorse the ballot initiative on slots, a move that could anger local teachers unions that believe the body should wait for more input and debate from the rank and file. A poll of members showed great division about the referendum, union sources said.
While slots supporters have made their case to officers of the association, Comptroller Peter Franchot and others are waging a similar battle to keep them neutral.
"They've got to help us either get some type of revenue, either taxes or the video lottery terminals, so we can continue funding public education at the rate I want it funded," Miller said. "There's nothing more I want than to fund public education, but the beneficiaries of public education have got to respond in kind."
The group's endorsement could be a major boost for slots supporters, who are attempting to tie expanded gambling to the state's long-term ability to fund education and other priorities.
In e-mails sent to its members, a grass-roots anti-slots organization has urged them to call the board, claiming that Miller has been "threatening to cut" education funding if it failed to coalesce behind the referendum.
Miller said in an interview that it was not "a scare tactic" to say education funding would shrink if the ballot initiative fails, because the state would reap a windfall of $600 million to $800 million in revenue if the slots measure passes. It would allow 15,000 machines in five locations: one each in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties.
The Senate president has also told union leaders that their failure to back the measure could force the General Assembly to seek another funding source for teacher pensions, including asking counties and school boards to foot the bill, a move that would almost certainly force severe cuts on the local level.
'A false choice'
Franchot said he told the teachers union board members that this is "a false choice."
"They've always said to me, 'We don't like slots, but we're worried about the budget,'" he said. "I keep reminding them that slots are forever; the budget problems we have are temporary."
Franchot, Maryland's top tax collector, has pushed instead for an effort to fill state coffers with money from stepped-up tax enforcement and developing "life sciences" in the state.
Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the state teachers association, declined to discuss any conversations that board members have had with Miller. He said that a vote today on supporting the slots referendum was not guaranteed but that it could come at any monthly meeting.
The union largely stayed out of the slots debate during the administration of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., although members were vocal in their opposition to any cuts in education funding.
But if it gets behind the referendum, the union could face resistance from local teachers associations. On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Teachers Association board met and urged the state board to "not take any position on slots until there's been an opportunity to have a deeper and richer debate with a greater number of members," said Bonnie Cullison, the group's president.
"It's a very difficult decision to make," she said, noting that she urged Montgomery County lawmakers to support the budget package presented in November's special legislative session, including the referendum that would put the question of slots to voters. "All of us local presidents know that we have members on both sides of the issue. ... We hope the board will hold off."
The Montgomery County Teachers Association has yet to take a position on slots, she said.
Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, wouldn't comment on what he thought the state teachers union board should do, but said he and other education leaders would adamantly oppose any effort to force the funding of teacher pensions on local counties and boards.
"No matter what happens, education funding should not be held hostage to any particular revenue," he said. "I am absolutely opposed to the cost of teacher pensions being put back on local governments."
He said county governments would have to raise taxes or make cuts in local school budgets to make up the millions that would go toward teacher pensions. He said he believes many counties would decide to cut raises for teachers.
Funding isn't the only reason union officials might be concerned about staying on the good side of the Maryland Senate. A bill that has been stalled in a Senate committee for weeks would create a labor relations board that would have the power to arbitrate grievance complaints from the union, displacing the role the State Board of Education has in such disputes.
The bill is a top priority for the state teachers association but has not budged from the Senate Rules Committee since Feb. 11.
Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.