Ehrlich submits new bill on slots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. launched his latest push for slots yesterday with legislation that calls for 15,500 of the machines at six locations around the state.

But both he and legislators said they doubted that the only major change from last year's bill - earmarking some of the proceeds for school construction - would be enough to win General Assembly approval.

The governor's plan would put slots at Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks and at a track to be built in Allegany County. With two non-racetrack locations still to be determined, Baltimore City and Prince George's County could each end up with two slots parlors - a possibility that has scuttled slots plans in the past.

The new inducements Ehrlich is offering are an extra $100 million a year for school construction and more operating money for education, including an optional piece of the so-called Thornton plan that particularly benefits Montgomery County, a hotbed of slots opponents.

Until recently Ehrlich had been ambivalent about introducing a slots bill this year, saying it would be foolish to expect the result would be different from that of the last two legislative sessions, in which the Senate passed a slots bill only to see it fail in the House of Delegates.

He said yesterday that he still did not believe slots would pass and said he would not lead the effort for this bill as he had with his previous proposals.

"This is a bad movie. I've seen it before," the governor said.

"We're going to put a bill in that looks a lot like last year's bill. It's a vehicle, and the vehicle is going to sit there," he said. "We will wait to see the speaker's actions. I am not going to waste my time. I am not going to put a great deal - if any - energy into passing a bill that will have no chance to succeed."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the lead opponent of slots for the past two years, said he didn't know how many delegates would support a gambling bill this year. But there are indications that the governor's proposal could get a vote in the House this time.

"There's a real desire of the members of the House to vote on the floor, and I think something will be voted on," said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller renewed his call for slots yesterday, saying approval made sense for both fiscal and political reasons.

"The Democrats are going to be labeled obstructionists if the bill does not get a full vote this year," Miller said.

The slots landscape has changed since last year. Pennsylvania legalized slot machines, and the family of Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos bought Rosecroft, adding another powerful voice to the slots lobby.

The bill that passed the Senate last year contained amendments that all but cut Rosecroft from contention as a slots venue, while the bill Ehrlich plans to introduce names it as a slots site.

But the linking of slots to school construction seems to have had little effect on slots opponents.

Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, chairwoman of the Prince George's County House delegation, said House members there are united in their opposition to more gambling.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn said slot machines do not provide the quality capital investment that Prince George's County deserves. "It's low-end gambling. It's not designed to attract tourists," Wynn, a Democrat, said yesterday. "I just don't see that a slots barn or a couple of slots barns benefits Prince George's County in any way."

Del. Salima S. Marriott, who leads Baltimore's House delegation, said that while the city did need money to repair its schools, Ehrlich's promise didn't address delegates' many other concerns with his plan.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he could support slots in the city and that using the money for capital expenses, such as school construction, made sense to him. "I'm not opposed to a reasonable proposal," O'Malley said. "I'd like it limited to the track."

School construction money and extra Thornton funding are the latest in a string of incentives Ehrlich has offered for passing slot machines.

His original purpose for them was to preserve the state's historic horse racing industry. Shortly after he was elected, with budget deficits looming, Ehrlich threatened to cut aid to local governments if slots didn't pass. Later, he linked slots revenue to fully funding the Thornton initiative.

Last fall, he suggested that slots were an environmental issue - saving horse farms, he said, would prevent sprawl, reduce runoff and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

"Next week he'll be in favor of slot machines for stem cell research," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and leading slots foe.

Ehrlich also unveiled several other bills in his legislative package yesterday, including a medical malpractice initiative that features several limits on lawsuits that he sought during last month's special session but which the legislature rejected. He has acknowledged that more reforms are unlikely this year.

The governor is also pushing proposals to increase enforcement of lead-paint laws, restrict teen drivers and provide tax breaks for military retirees and tax incentives for film production companies and technology companies.

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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