ANNAPOLIS – A leading House Democrat introduced slot machine legislation Wednesday that closely mirrored Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s original call for the gaming devices.
At the same time, Ehrlich’s spokesmen were backtracking on an administration proposal that sharply increased the number of slot machines in play.
House Appropriations Chairman Pete Rawlings, D-Baltimore, said putting 10,000 slot machines at four racetracks could help fund education. Rawlings introduced legislation to put the machines at the Pimlico, Rosecroft and Laurel racetracks, and at a track under construction in Cumberland.
Meanwhile, Ehrlich’s staff worked to rescind his written support for 13,500 slots at three tracks and more for the Cumberland track.
The Office of Legislative Services asked Ehrlich for a plan to support his budget numbers. In his budget released Friday, Ehrlich anticipated $1 billion in revenue from slots over the next two years to help cover the state’s $1.2 billion deficit for 2004.
Rawlings leaked Ehrlich’s written response to the inquiry at a briefing Tuesday, the day before Rawling’s bill was submitted to the House.
On Wednesday, Ehrlich’s spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver dismissed the memo as “numbers on a napkin,” and added that negotiations are still underway and a bill has not been drafted.
Any slot plan will face a tough path in the General Assembly this year, with several legislative leaders strongly opposing legalization of slot machines.
Ehrlich has said he expected “the best parts of the best bills,” to be combined during the session to form an omnibus gaming bill.
In order to support his budget numbers, Ehrlich’s slot machines bill will likely have to include more machines than Rawlings’ 10,000, said a legislative budget analyst.
Director of Financial Policy Analysis Warren G. Deschenaux told a joint hearing of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation committees Tuesday that Ehrlich plans on more than 10,000 machines to produce the $395 million in revenue estimated for 2004, and $600 million the following year. Track owners would pay $350 million for licenses, and operating revenues from late in the year will fund an additional $45 million, the budget said. The administration’s memo to Deschenaux’s department called for the Pimlico, Rosecroft and Laurel racetracks to pay $100 million each for licenses to operate 4,500 slot machines at each location. The Alleghany racetrack in Cumberland would pay $50 million to operate an unspecified number of machines. Rawlings called the number of machines “exorbitant.” When Ehrlich’s official plan is ready, DeLeaver said he will present it to the public. He has not yet commented on Rawlings’ bill, or Deschenaux’s observation about the need for more than 10,000 slots. “The revenue is practically limitless,” DeLeaver said. “Slots are not the panacea of revenue, but it’s a good start.”
Rawlings said he thinks slots can be the start to a more ambitious budget- balancing act. He said his committee would do more than Ehrlich’s budget, by using income taxes and spending cuts to eliminate the $700 million deficit waiting for 2005, while fully funding a mandated increase in education expenditures.
“It can be done . . . and we’re gonna do it,” he said.
Ehrlich has promised to veto any taxes, but slots are a dicey alternative.
“I don’t even know why we’re doing slots at the tracks,” said House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, a slots opponent. “I mean if we’re trying to raise revenues from slots, let’s put them in the appropriate geographic locations to raise the revenue the state needs for its budget shortfall.”
Slots have a “50-50 shot at best,” said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s.
Currie warned if slots fail, his committee would have to use more spending cuts.