Ehrlich shoring up slots support

With the Maryland Senate scheduled to begin this morning what promises to be a contentious debate on slots legislation, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his top advisers are working furiously to win support from his fellow Republicans for the centerpiece of his solution to the state's fiscal crisis.

The governor said he is confident that more than half of the Senate's 14 Republican members will back slots. But four of the 10 senators who voted for slots last year indicated yesterday that they either oppose the amended version of the bill or have serious reservations about it.


"I have always been anti-gambling, but I made an exception last year for slots at the tracks, only at the tracks," said Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican. "But this proposal goes far beyond that in ridiculous ways, and I'm not going to support that."

The governor can ill afford to lose a single vote: Last year, the Senate approved Ehrlich's slots proposal 25-21, only to see it killed in a House committee.


Senate Democratic leaders indicate they believe changes made to the slots legislation - including allowing expanded gambling at sites others than the racetracks - have picked up at least two additional Senate votes within their party. That's likely enough backing to help ensure the bill passes in the Senate.

But the possibility that a slots proposal could fail to win support from a majority of senators in the governor's own party raised concerns yesterday among Ehrlich advisers.

"The governor expects the Senate Republicans to support his bill and is making that clear to all 14 senators," said Ehrlich adviser Paul Schurick. The possibility that a majority of the caucus would vote against the measure "would be completely unacceptable to the governor, and we're making that clear, as well."

The three other Republicans who indicated yesterday they have problems with the current measure are Sen. Richard F. Colburn of the Eastern Shore, Sen. Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County, and Sen. Janet Greenip of Anne Arundel County. All three backed last year's bill.

'A lot of talking'

It would be embarrassing to Ehrlich for Democrats to be able to claim credit for winning Senate passage of slots - overcoming majority Republican opposition - and it would likely embolden gambling opponents in the House of Delegates.

To head off that possibility, top advisers have been meeting all week with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, both individually and in groups.

Hafer said yesterday morning he had been called to an afternoon meeting with budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.


"I'm sure there will be a lot of talking over the next two or three days," Hafer said.

But last year's measure permitted 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks. The bill approved by a Senate committee Tuesday night authorizes up to 15,500 slot machines at six sites - three racetracks and three nontrack destinations in Baltimore City and Cecil, Dorchester and Prince George's counties.

Ehrlich is counting on expanded gambling to eventually provide more than $800 million a year in annual revenues, a major chunk of what is needed to meet promised public school funding increases.

Yesterday, Ehrlich was adamant that he would be able to keep a majority of his party's senators behind the heavily amended slots plan.

"We'll be OK," Ehrlich said. "When they want to bring me their plan on how to cut $1 billion from the budget, then I'll listen. Otherwise, I believe they'll be voting for slots."

But several Republicans ran campaigns in 2002 in which they promised to support slots only if certain conditions were met: keeping them limited to the racetracks; all revenues devoted to education; and putting the issue before voters in a referendum.


"Last year, two of the conditions were met, and I voted for it. Now it's down to just one," said Harris, the Senate minority whip.

Harris said he is particularly troubled by the sudden decision Monday to add Dorchester as a county eligible for a slots facility - without informing or receiving approval from Colburn, the senator representing the jurisdiction.

"I'm still undecided, but I feel very strongly about the idea of local courtesy," Harris said.

Colburn said he will oppose the measure unless Dorchester is removed, but said "that's just the No. 1 of many things I have questions about."

"Last year's bill was totally different from this bill," Colburn said. "This goes totally beyond last year."

Greenip said she is troubled by the decision to expand last year's gambling proposal beyond racetracks. While she said she recognizes the need to support Ehrlich's fiscal initiative, she said "you shouldn't base things on one vote" and noted she otherwise has backed his proposals.


But Republican senators who support the slots proposal say they don't believe their wavering colleagues have much to fear, either from a GOP primary challenger or in a general election.

"I think it's important that we recognize that the whole slots issue has been difficult for Republicans," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican who is helping count slots votes for the administration. "Those of us who do support slots are likely to be aggressively supported by the governor in the future, and he remains very popular in our state's Republican areas and our conservative areas."

And senators who are wavering in their support for slots said they know they'll be hearing a lot from the governor over the next two days. The Senate president said yesterday he intends to have a final vote tomorrow or, if necessary, bring the chamber in to work on Saturday.

"I know I'll be attending many meetings between now and Saturday," Colburn said.

Local opposition

Also yesterday, in his strongest statement to date on slots, Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson said that he does not support the legislation now before the Senate.


"The more I hear about it, the less I like it," Johnson told members of the Greater Bowie Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon meeting in Bowie. "I don't want the county to be a gambling haven. ... Right now, I'm just not prepared to support the bill as it is."

He said it is theoretically possible under the proposed legislation that Prince George's could wind up with as many as four giant slots casinos even as other areas - including Howard County, Baltimore County and Ocean City - have been exempted from consideration for slots.

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.