State-owned slots dens could be part of a broad solution to Maryland's school funding needs, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday in his most extensive comments to date on how new House of Delegates gambling guidelines mesh with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s latest slot-machine bill.
Busch indicated a willingness to work with Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on slots and other revenue measures - most likely taxes - to help Maryland generate the money for a mandated, $1.3 billion-a-year schools funding program.
"We've always been willing to negotiate," Busch said. "But you have to have somebody to negotiate with, and you have to have something to negotiate."
But the speaker said he thinks the House ideas contained in a final Ways and Means Committee gambling report distributed yesterday are the most thorough and offer the best return to taxpayers.
"Who do you think did more work this summer, the Senate, the governor or the House?" Busch asked in a veiled swipe at the state's two other dominant political leaders, both of whom support slots.
Busch said the House guidelines provide a roadmap for how the state should implement a slots program if lawmakers so decide.
The guidelines include public ownership of slot machines instead of allowing racetrack owners to buy them; competitive bidding for facility operations; limiting slots licenses to one per company; and locating some slots emporiums along interstate highways to capture gamblers who would otherwise leave the state.
The House will pass a slots bill only if it is coupled with tax increases or another revenue source that will provide all the money Maryland needs for the so-called Thornton plan for public school funding - perhaps up to $1 billion yearly, Busch and a key delegate reaffirmed yesterday.
"Every side is going to have to give on some of these issues," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "And if it doesn't, I don't think anything would happen."
The package that House leaders are envisioning appears unacceptable to Ehrlich, who says he will veto any version of a sales or income tax increase. Hixson said yesterday that other revenue options include higher corporate taxes and an income tax surcharge on the state's wealthiest residents, but Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said those, too, were unacceptable.
Ehrlich released a revised slots plan late last month that calls for 15,500 machines at four racetracks and two nontrack locations.
Track owners would get to keep much of the proceeds, earning them millions.
Busch said yesterday that the numbers in the governor's bill are too high.
He said 11,500 machines would be preferable. Public ownership - even for slot machines adjacent to tracks - would prevent track owners such as Joseph A. De Francis, a part owner of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, from receiving a windfall.
The Maryland Stadium Authority, he said, could build gambling facilities more cheaply than privately owned racetracks.
"If you are looking at this as all your money, why would you give it to someone else?" Busch said.
Public hearings held by the House committee showed "people did want slots in Maryland," Hixson said.
But Hixson and Busch said because slots money would not come into state coffers for about two years, and even then are not enough for schools and health care, other revenues are needed.
"Slots, revenues and cuts - that's how we see the funding and the budget going," she said.
As the legalization of slots continues to dominate attention in Annapolis, a new study released yesterday showed political donations from gambling companies and related entities such as bingo hall operators and horse associations continue to flow into the state.
In the past year, gambling interests gave $170,000 to Maryland candidates and committees, according to an analysis done by Common Cause/Maryland, a campaign finance watchdog group.
Developer and Ocean Downs track owner William Rickman and his relatives topped the list of big donors, pouring $37,020 into state political coffers between Jan. 8, 2003, and Jan. 14, 2004.
During the previous four years, Rickman and company donated about $183,000 to state lawmakers.
Rickman gave through a variety of companies he controls, using what Common Cause calls a loophole to exceed the state's $4,000 donation limit.
The governor and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele were the largest recipients of the contributions, collecting $34,725 over the 53-week period Common Cause examined.
Also on the receiving end: Miller and Busch, who received $13,500 and $7,550, respectively. Mayor Martin O'Malley has received more than $15,000 from organized gambling and its associates, $6,600 of it over the past calendar year.
The report's author, James Browning, Common Cause's executive director, offers questions but few conclusions. "What do all these contributions buy?" his report concludes. "Money means access and access means influence."
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Read the texts of Del. Frush's proposed Terrapin license plate law, HB 468, and the governor's slots bill, SB 197, and other proposed legislation.
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