'No slots, no Thornton,' Ehrlich tells lawmakers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stormed through a day of confrontation over slot machines yesterday - picking a fight with Baltimore's mayor, cheering for an increase in traffic at Pimlico and bluntly warning lawmakers to pass his bill or face the demise of a historic bargain on education aid.

For the second straight day, Ehrlich made an appearance before a General Assembly committee - previously a rare occurrence for a governor - to drum up support for his top legislative priority of the session.

Again the governor offered legislators more arguments than answers. Aides acknowledged that his bill remains in a state of flux - with no final decision on how to split the proceeds of slot machines - on the 50th day of the 90-day session.

In testimony before a Senate committee, Ehrlich explicitly warned that if the legislation fails, there may be no money for a new school aid formula designed to help poorer jurisdictions. He outlined a stark choice: Expand gambling or scrap the recommendations of the Thornton Commission.

"There is no way Thornton gets funded without incredibly draconian cuts," Ehrlich told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Lawmakers said Ehrlich was even more direct at a private breakfast with the Legislative Black Caucus, in effect telling members: "No slots, no Thornton."

During his testimony, Ehrlich dismissed Mayor Martin O'Malley's estimates of the cost to Baltimore if slots were approved at Pimlico. In other comments, he said city residents should welcome increased traffic around Pimlico, and for the first time he indicated a willingness to consider slots at Timonium Fairgrounds.

The governor also refused to back down from a personal jab at House Speaker Michael E. Busch and questioned the credibility of a largely black ministers group.

The governor was joined at the witness table by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who took his own verbal swing at Busch's statement that he would be open to a proposal to send the issue to a statewide referendum.

"That's not leadership. That's followership," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

The day's activities showed that Ehrlich is pulling no punches in lobbying for slots.

The governor's bill - as originally submitted - would allow 10,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks. He has presented the legislation's passage as necessary to fill an almost $1.3 billion shortfall in next year's budget.

In his original bill, Ehrlich sought to reserve 64 percent of the proceeds for education. Yesterday, however, he said it could be revised to drop the schools' share to as little as 50 percent.

Ehrlich's Senate appearance yesterday showed that he is prepared to play hardball with critics such as O'Malley - whose representative urged a House committee Tuesday to kill the administration's bill.

In public testimony, Ehrlich dismissed a report by the O'Malley administration estimating that Baltimore would need $65 million in capital improvements to prepare for an influx of gamblers at Pimlico, where the governor wants to install 3,000 slots.

"Improving traffic is a good thing, but we don't buy into the $65 million," Ehrlich told senators. The governor said more traffic would be "a welcome sight" in the Pimlico area because too few people are going to the racetrack now.

Told of the governor's comments last night, O'Malley asked, "Did he read the report?"

The mayor said the city sent Ehrlich the report at the governor's request with only a week's notice.

"We gave him our best estimate of what those costs would be for a very large number of slots and business he is projecting would come to the track. I'd be curious to hear from him exactly which of the numbers he questions," O'Malley said.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and author of his own slots bill, joined in questioning O'Malley's estimates, saying he doesn't see a need for costly road improvements around Pimlico.

Ehrlich's comments about Pimlico traffic annoyed some of the legislators whose votes he may need to pass his bill.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who represents the district that includes Pimlico, said she was "insulted and offended" by the governor's dismissal of the issue. Gladden said that while the mayor's estimates may be "a little too rich," Ehrlich had come up with no numbers at all.

During his testimony, Ehrlich opened the door to the notion of placing slot machines at Timonium. "I have an open mind on that," he said in response to a question from Baltimore Sen. Verna L. Jones about why two tracks in predominantly white communities are not in his plans for slots.

Ehrlich said that despite his favorable views on slot machines, he deferred to the prevailing view on the Eastern Shore that slots at Ocean Downs would hurt Ocean City's tourism industry. He provided no explanation for not putting slots at Timonium.

After the hearing, Ehrlich played down the Timonium option. "We don't anticipate it, and it's certainly not something that's in our plan."

Critics of the slots plan, including Busch, have questioned why the governor is proposing slots at Pimlico and Rosecroft - both in largely black communities - and not at Ocean Downs and Timonium in largely white areas.

On Tuesday, Ehrlich accused Busch of playing "the race card" by raising the issue - a personal jab that was still rippling through Annapolis yesterday.

The governor's comments prompted Baltimore writer Taylor Branch, who has written best-selling histories of the civil rights movement, to send Busch an e-mail message urging the speaker not to be silenced.

Branch called the charge of playing the race card "a clever evasion" used by those who "try to dodge normal political discourse by demonizing any mention of race."

Ehrlich's words also brought a sharp reply from a largely black group of ministers who have been working with Busch.

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, wrote the governor that his swipe at Busch was "irresponsible, indeed offensive."

"To accuse him of 'playing the race card' to gain tactical political advantage smears this honorable public servant," Perkins wrote.

Ehrlich dismissed the ministers group, which supported his opponent in last year's election. He labeled it "the committee to elect Kathleen Kennedy Townsend" and said it had "no credibility."

The governor said yesterday that he stands by his statement about Busch but does not expect it to affect their longtime friendship. "It's a strategy," Ehrlich said. "We were friends before this. We'll be friends afterward."

Busch seemed taken aback when told about the latest comments by Ehrlich, who previously served in Congress. "I don't know if it's the way people do business in Washington, but it's not the way people do business in Annapolis," he said.

Busch brushed off Miller's criticism, saying: "The House has been the only one to stand up and ask the hard questions on the long-term effects of a policy that is going to be in effect for a 20-year period."

Ehrlich's estrangement from traditional African American groups increased yesterday as the president of the nation's oldest civil rights organization criticized the slots plan.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Baltimore and state organizations will announce their opposition to slots next week.

"I can tell you, without making a statement for them, that there are very serious concerns on the negative impact that slots will have on poor communities throughout the state," said Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman.

Ehrlich confirmed yesterday that he has enlisted the help of former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, to help pass the slots bill. Taylor will not be a paid lobbyist, but will be reaching out to legislators.

Meanwhile, the governments of several jurisdictions that expect to feel the effects of slots were submitting to Ehrlich their own estimates of the local costs.

Prince George's County, which has Rosecroft within its borders and Laurel Park just outside, said it would need $1 million for infrastructure and $8 million a year for emergency services, criminal justice and social costs.

Prince George's became the first Maryland jurisdiction to put a price tag on the expected government costs of pathological gambling, estimating its cost at $5 million a year. Ehrlich has proposed $500,000 to mitigate problem gambling statewide.

Anne Arundel County, home of Laurel Park, estimated it would face one-time costs of $850,000 and $6 million annually for government services.

Howard County, which borders Laurel, estimated its costs at about $250,000 annually, but said it would need about $2.75 million for one-time traffic improvements.

Sun staff writers Greg Garland, David Nitkin, Doug Donovan, Larry Carson and Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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