Panel to hear Ehrlich on slots


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gets a second chance today as he seeks to persuade the General Assembly to extensively expand legalized gambling in Maryland.

One year after a much-criticized performance in which the governor failed to provide financial estimates and angered delegates with accusations of race-baiting against the House speaker, Ehrlich will make another rare gubernatorial appearance before a legislative committee to present his case for legalizing slot machine gambling and the $700 million to $800 million a year he says it could generate for the state.

"The president of the Senate called and asked me to attend. I wasn't planning to, because everyone certainly knows my position on slots, but he made this request," Ehrlich said in a short interview yesterday.

The governor hopes to secure a far different outcome from last year. While the Senate approved a slots bill, the measure was killed in a House committee, handing the administration a major defeat.

Expected to join the governor before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee will be his top legislative ally on slots, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and many of the administration's top officials - including the state schools superintendent and, for the first time, representatives of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Unlike last year, administration officials have carefully scripted their presentations of the governor's plan. The proposal includes 11,500 slot machines at four race tracks - Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Rosecroft and one to be built in Allegany County. Another 4,000 machines would be permitted at two nontrack locations along the Interstate 95 corridor.

But despite all of the preparations, the measure remains in flux. Senate leaders say they see the proposal as a starting point, and House Democratic leaders say any bill that might be seriously considered would need major revisions - including possibly state ownership of the gambling locations.

Ehrlich administration officials indicate they're willing to consider just about any changes, except tax increases or full-scale casinos. They're even opening the door - just a crack - to slots at Ocean Downs on the Eastern Shore.

"If the leaders of the political and business community in Ocean City decide they want to back slots at Ocean Downs, the governor will support it," said Ehrlich adviser Paul Schurick.

Administration officials will also reveal their financial estimates of how much money could be raised under their plan. They are expected to project about $1.7 billion a year in revenues, once all the slot machines are up and running and after winners have been paid. (Legislative analysts project slightly lower revenues, as well as larger declines in state lottery sales due to slots.) The governor's plan divides the money by allocating 39 percent to track owners and 46 percent to education, with the rest going to other purposes.

After Ehrlich officials finish their presentations, dozens of other proponents and opponents of expanded gambling are expected to testify in a hearing that could extend into the evening.

Paul Micucci, executive vice president of Magna Entertainment Corp., the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, said the company's message will be that slots at racetracks offer the best economic deal for Maryland.

He disputed the view of critics who say Ehrlich's slots plan is too generous to racetrack owners. "This is the best bill for any state I've seen," Micucci said. "The returns to us are minimal."

Other Maryland horseracing interests say they're disappointed that the split of slots profits wasn't changed from last year's slots legislation.

"The bill last year was way, way short of what we think we need just to stay alive," said Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horse Breeders Association. The bill would generate an estimated $3 million to $4 million a year to support breeders, he said, far short of the $20 million that is needed.

Similarly, Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the bill only includes $30 million to bolster purses paid to top finishing horses, less than half of the $70 million required to stay competitive.

"Purses are the engine that drives the horseracing industry," he said.

The committee also will hear from slots opponents such as Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of

"What we want the senators to understand is that there is a lot of opposition to slots in the state of Maryland," Meisner said, arguing that gambling shouldn't be relied upon to fund education. "We should all be willing to support [education] with taxes that are raised in a fair and reasonable way," he said.

Most Senate leaders say they're confident their chamber will approve some sort of a slots proposal.

"I think we're going to put out a bill, but I think it will look a little different," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice-chairman of the Senate budget committee.

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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Read the text of proposed legislation, including the proposed assault weapons ban, SB 288; the bill to require voting machines to issue paper receipts, HB 53; the governor's proposed slots bill, SB 197; and the bill to remove the "trigger" from Thornton, SB 245.

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