Ehrlich voices opposition to slot-machine initiative

The Baltimore Sun

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a longtime slots advocate whose repeated failure to pass a gambling proposal defined his four-year term, indicated yesterday that he planned to vote against a slots referendum on the November ballot.

Ehrlich, a Republican, said he opposed altering the state constitution to allow slots, an approach he said he rejected while in office. An estimated $600 million in revenue from 15,000 slot machines would fuel what Ehrlich called unrestrained government spending.

"What people need to understand is, this is not my bill; this is not even anywhere close to my bill. And I'm very fearful that this bill is bad policy," Ehrlich said during a weekly show he hosts with his wife on WBAL Radio, The Kendel and Bob Ehrlich Show. The former governor called the station after giving a speech earlier in the day.

The Ehrlichs devoted their two-hour show to the slots issue, with several opponents as guests: Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot; state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican; and Herb McMillan, a former Republican state delegate who is president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association.

The former governor acknowledged that he had been a slots supporter for "an awful long time," but said he was not in favor of the plan adopted by the General Assembly late last year. The slots proposal was part of a budget-balancing package that included a sales tax increase and other tax decreases and spending cuts.

"I want to see a future for horse racing in Maryland, but this is just a bad way to go about it," Ehrlich said.

In 2004, Ehrlich did briefly indicate his willingness to support a referendum on slots, in a bid to strike a deal with Democratic legislative leaders. But the talks broke down.

While Robert Ehrlich did not explicitly urge a "no" vote in November, his intent was clear. Summarizing the arguments, Kendel Ehrlich ended the show by saying, "I think our listeners got a lot of good information: 'No' on the slots referendum."

Last week, Republicans in the House of Delegates also announced they were opposing the referendum, which is supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley. They had solidly lined up for years behind Ehrlich's slots plans, which were defeated in the Democratic-dominated chamber led by Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"It's not surprising [Ehrlich] would be against it, simply because O'Malley is for it," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Frederick W. Puddester, head of a pro-slots ballot committee, said Ehrlich and Franchot "both have robust pro-slots backgrounds" but now oppose them "because they're putting personal political ambitions before Maryland's future." Puddester noted that business groups like the Maryland Chamber of Commerce support the referendum because they believe slots revenue will avert pressure for more tax increases.

Opponents of slots said they welcomed Ehrlich to their effort, particularly because a recent statewide poll showed that a majority of Republicans are backing slots. Ehrlich's opposition to the referendum, they said, could change GOP voters' views.

"He's a perfect messenger to get the word out" among Republicans, said Scott Arceneaux, an adviser to Marylanders United to Stop Slots.

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