ANNAPOLIS – Democrats said Wednesday they have the votes to thwart slots legislation for one year.
“We can deliver a firewall to (House) Speaker (Michael) Busch, if he wants it,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery.
Franchot claims to have the support of four committee chairmen, 16 members of the black caucus, and, most importantly, 71 Democrats, the number necessary to put the kibosh on slots legislation for one year. He also said he can count on 20 Republican delegates to support the Democrats if a struggle over such a moratorium opens on the floor.
The moratorium would delay slot machine legislation, allowing time to commission a study on gambling, at the same time delivering a crippling blow to the Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s budget.
The budget requires $395 million from slot machines license revenue to balance.
Ehrlich’s spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver called the moratorium an “exercise in futility.”
Another Ehrlich spokesman, Greg Massoni, blasted Busch, D-Anne Arundel, for his reliance on taxes to cover the deficit, saying, “Where’s the money going to come from?”
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, said a moratorium would allow the state to deal from a position of strength.
The Democrats announcement came hours after the lawmakers who could legalize slot machines at Maryland racetracks met before a packed crowd to hear the first briefing on the topic.
Legislative Director of Policy Analysis Warren Deschenaux told the joint committee hearing that slots could earn a gross between $800 million and $1.8 billion depending on the number of machines approved and the amount each machine makes. The proceeds are to be split between the state coffers and the horseracing industry.
“If you can solve the deficit without (slot licensing fees), it would be more beneficial to wait,” he said.
Without Ehrlich’s slots proposal, expected later this week, House Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, said some of the meeting’s speculation is premature.
“We haven’t heard word one of the governor’s plan.”
She also said she will shelve the sales tax from her package also expected at the end of the week.
Ehrlich’s plan will need to earn the state $400 million in license fees and earnings this year and $600 million in earnings next year in order to match his budget plan.
Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, disregarded the sentiments of leading House Democrats suggesting a moratorium on slots for this year, and said licensing fees from three existing racetracks for slots could be included in this year’s budget.
Deschenaux said the estimates would include $350 million in license fees from four racetracks, which include a track under construction in Cumberland, and $45 million in earnings by June of 2004.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings said, “Many of us don’t believe we can achieve this $395 million,” and questioned Ehrlich’s assumption that slots can be up and running by next year.
Only Rawlings’ plan for 10,000 slots at four racetracks has been introduced so far, but a hearing has yet to be set.
His plan represents the low-end of the slot machine bills expected this session.
The Maryland Horsebreeders Association submitted a plan for 18,000 slot machines.
Ehrlich sent a memo to Legislative Services suggesting 13,500 slots at three locations, with an undisclosed additional amount at Cumberland. – 30 – CNS-1-29-03