Ehrlich wants hand in slots plan

Saying key opposition seems to be eroding, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signaled yesterday that he will be an active participant in developing a slot machine gambling plan for Maryland, rather than leaving the task to the General Assembly.

An emboldened Ehrlich has changed the position he held at the close of the Assembly session this year, when he said he would spend no more of his political energy trying to persuade the House of Delegates to adopt his gambling plan.

Ehrlich said that with House Speaker Michael E. Busch actively discussing building state-owned slots facilities on public land at the state fairgrounds in Timonium and elsewhere, opinion has shifted enough for him to get involved again.

An aide to the governor later indicated that Ehrlich would be willing to incorporate some of Busch's ideas into a proposal that would have the administration's backing.

"This is the first public pronouncement from the speaker. We took that as a very positive step," Ehrlich said in an interview yesterday.

"It meets the test we put out in March," he said, referring to his assertion that he would not return with legislation unless Busch altered his views.

This year, Busch played a leading role in killing Ehrlich's proposal to install slot machines at Maryland racetracks.

Critics said the governor's proposal gave too much money to track owners, and failed to account for social costs and expenses for roads and other improvements that huge slots palaces would incur.

Instead, the House Ways and Means Committee has embarked on yet another study of expanded gambling, an issue that continues to attract supporters as Maryland faces growing bills for public education and health care and a surfeit of tax dollars to pay for them.

With Busch exploring various slot machine options, Ehrlich said he has authorized his aides to begin discussions on a new plan.

"At the staff level, informal talks have begun," Ehrlich said, refusing to disclose details of whether slots facilities at locations away from tracks were acceptable to him. "The real negotiations will not occur in public."

Ehrlich said he would like to reach an agreement with legislative leaders on a legalized gambling initiative before January, when the Assembly convenes for its annual 90-day session. "Hopefully, we could come to 'yes' before the session," he said.

Busch said yesterday that he remains unconvinced that permitting slot machine gambling is sound public policy, but that he wants his delegates armed with enough information and alternatives to make wise decisions.

The public ownership idea -- with the Maryland Stadium Authority building slots bars containing machines monitored by the Maryland lottery -- appears to offer the greatest return to taxpayers, he said.

"If in fact you like the idea of expanded gambling, the direction we are going in puts the state in a better position," Busch said.

"It still has to be the governor's initiative. He's the one that wants expanded gambling in the state of Maryland," he said.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said Busch's visit to the Timonium Fairgrounds last week, where he discussed the public ownership idea, reflected "some significant movement by the speaker."

"We want to participate, we want to play a role," he said.

The governor has previously said that slots should be confined to racetracks to help the horseracing industry, and because the sites already are home to gambling.

But Schurick said yesterday that Busch's exploration had merit, the clearest indication to date that Ehrlich would be willing to back some of the speaker's ideas.

"The idea of seeking ways to lower the cost of land, the idea of seeking ways to lower the cost of money, has a lot of appeal," Schurick said. "Every cost that can be lowered goes right to the bottom line, education funding."

Former Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said the administration must remain involved if a gambling package was to be adopted.

"An issue that is this big and controversial needs the leadership of the chief executive, and the presiding [legislative] officers," Taylor said.