Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his plan to legalize slot machine gambling would generate almost $900 million a year for the state within four years, providing nearly 70 percent of the money needed to pay for a landmark public schools funding plan.
"It's not the entire answer, but it's a significant part of the answer," Ehrlich said during a rare gubernatorial appearance before a legislative committee.
But legislative analysts questioned some of his projections, estimating the state might take in as much as $200 million less annually, in part because of potential declines in lottery sales.
Joined by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the governor argued that his proposal to legalize 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks and two other locations along Interstate 95 is crucial to the horse racing industry and to meet the school-funding increases promised two years ago in the Thornton Commission legislation.
Schaefer told lawmakers to stop doing one-time budget fixes year after year and make a commitment to generating new sources of revenue.
"As a taxpayer, I'm tired of this budget question," Schaefer told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "It must be solved, and it must be solved this year. This is the year the budget must be balanced, and slots must be part of the answer."
Ehrlich and others who testified acknowledged that much of the hearing seemed familiar, as they repeated points made during last year's slots debate.
"Here we are again," Ehrlich said. "Groundhog Day. Same place. Same issue. ... Same need to fill the budget gap."
A crucial difference is the expanded number of slot machines - and two additional gambling sites - proposed by Ehrlich.
The governor's staff projects that the new bill would provide $894 million a year by the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2007, covering 70 percent of the $1.3 billion needed to fulfill the Thornton plan that year.
But the legislature's chief fiscal analyst, Warren G. Deschenaux, said his staff predicts that slots would generate about $734 million by that year, because of a lower estimate of the profits of each machine. The analysts also predict lottery revenues would decline $67 million in that period, as consumers switch to slots. Ehrlich's lottery director disputed that projection.
During the hearing, the governor called on lawmakers to help ensure a better outcome for his proposal this year. Last year, the Senate narrowly passed a bill permitting slots, but it was killed in a House committee.
Miller and Sen. Ulysses Currie, budget committee chairman, predicted that slots legislation will pass the Senate again this year. But prospects in the House are much more uncertain, as Democratic leaders have raised major questions about crucial elements of Ehrlich's plan.
The governor's presentation began an almost seven-hour hearing, as supporters and opponents of gambling testified in one-hour blocks.
Some of the most divisive testimony surrounded the possibility of slot machines at the Ocean Downs harness track, near Ocean City. An Ehrlich adviser told The Sun on Tuesday that the governor would consider permitting slots at Ocean Downs if there was community support.
Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. said that community remains staunchly opposed to slots and that Ehrlich had promised to keep out gambling. "The people I see tell me keep the gambling out of Ocean City, out of Worcester County and out of Maryland," he said.
William J. Rickman Jr., owner of Ocean Downs, said he believes Ocean City's business community does support slots at the track. "Is Ocean Downs going to be the only track on the East Coast that doesn't have slots?" asked Rickman, who also holds the license to build the Allegany racetrack.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a slots opponent and Republican who represents the lower Eastern Shore, said adding slots to Ocean Downs would hurt Ocean City tourism businesses.
During the hearing, supporters talked about how slots could revitalize racetracks, increase jobs and revitalize economically depressed neighborhoods.
"It's not about burdening Baltimore City and Park Heights; it's about empowering our community," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who represents the Pimlico Race Course neighborhoods. She asked that the bill include a promise for the state to pay for transportation upgrades around the tracks, and that the community be given more input.
Those who testified against the bill frequently told emotional tales of families ruined by gambling addictions.
Kimberly S. Roman, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland, told the panel it needs to consider social costs of increased problem gambling. "I hope you will consider the hidden costs and damage to families of this regressive tax that some want to benignly call a painless revenue source," she said.
Some slots opponents in the Park Heights neighborhood said they were frightened away from yesterday's hearing after finding threatening fliers in their mailboxes. "We need slots, not troublemakers in Park Heights. !!!! BEWARE!!!!," the fliers said.
"They are scared. ... It's intimidation," said Guy Rinfrow, a community organizer.
While opponents argued that the governor's proposal will unjustly enrich track owners, Alan Rifkin - a lobbyist for Magna Entertainment, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park - told legislators the proposal provides Maryland with one of the best deals in the country.
Thoroughbred horse owners and breeders testified at the hearing that the slots bill needs to provide significantly more money for the purses paid to owners of top-finishing horses and to breeder funds if it is going to make a real difference in improving horse racing.
Also yesterday, an attorney for the anti-gambling group stopslotsmaryland.com filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission regarding the work being done by a nonprofit organization called Citizens for Maryland's Future.
Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's chief fund-raiser and a member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, acknowledged last week that he has been soliciting contributions for the group, with the intent of using the money for an advertising campaign to support passage of slots legislation.
Hug refused yesterday to comment on the complaint.
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.
Assembly on Baltimoresun.com
Learn the names of your representatives and how to contact them and how to register to vote.
Read the text of proposed legislation, including the proposed assault weapons ban, SB 288; the governor's proposed slots bill, SB 197; and the bill to remove the "trigger" from Thornton, SB 245.
Review Sun coverage of the General Assembly, and contact the writers.