ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich said Tuesday he has the votes to pass his slot machine plan in the House of Delegates.
Opponents to his bill say that can’t be true, because they claim to have more than enough votes to kill Ehrlich’s plan, and they have organized a new lobbying effort to win more.
Two weeks before the first hearing on Ehrlich’s slots bill, Feb. 26, lawmakers on both sides of the issue are counting the same votes, hoping they’ll come out to the magic 71, a majority of the House.
Ehrlich announced he had the necessary support at a swearing-in ceremony.
“Slots legislation will be a reality in April,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
“I was astounded when the governor came out and said he had the votes,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, author of the plan to table slots legislation for one year.
“We have a veto-proof majority,” Franchot said.
If the legislation does not pass this year, Ehrlich has said it will not have another chance next year.
“The governor does not believe lawmakers change their minds overnight,” Fawell said.
The bill will allow four Maryland racetracks to purchase licenses to run 10,500 slot machines, plugging a $395 million hole in this year’s $1.3 billion deficit and earning more than $600 million in future years.
Support has been up and down for Franchot’s moratorium, which he said will allow the Legislature more time to make a bill that works.
Before he released the bill, Franchot said he had the support of 71 Democratic delegates and about 20 secretly supportive Republicans, but it hit the floor with only 67 sponsors. Since then, Franchot said support has been building.
“The governor’s bill blew up,” Franchot said. “I think we’d have more than 71 signatures today.”
Ehrlich believes a reworked bill will pass both houses this year, because it’s the only proposal on the table to fund education, Fawell said.
Meanwhile religious organizations, bar and restaurant owners, political opponents and community groups Tuesday formed StopSlotsMaryland.com, pledging to use a grass-roots campaign to beat Ehrlich’s bill.
Proponents of Ehrlich’s other programs are among his biggest antagonists on slots.
“We’ll support the governor on 99 percent of everything else he’s supporting, but we just can’t sell our souls to the devil on this one,” said Marcia Harris, president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
The restaurant industry could lose up to 5 percent of its business if Ehrlich’s plan succeeds, she said.
The group doesn’t have the funds to advertise, but it will spend between $50,000 and $75,000 to organize events. It also will ask its more than 6,500 members to lobby representatives to vote against slots.
StopSlotsMaryland.com will hold its first rally at a Baltimore church Thursday night, with ardent slots opponent House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
-30 – CNS-2-11-03