By Dan Genz and Tom Lobianco
ANNAPOLIS – Allegations of using race to influence policy took the front row at a House hearing about what was already the most controversial issue of the session – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s plan to legalize slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.
Repeating a statement he made to the horse racing industry Monday, Ehrlich said he resented that House Speaker Michael Busch, the General Assembly’s leading slots opponent, was appealing to predominantly black churches to defeat slots.
“I meant what I said,” Ehrlich said, “Why not white churches? To target one race, or one subdivision is way off target, way off track. Let’s debate the bill.”
White church representatives there to protest slots raised their hands at Ehrlich’s suggestion, then, about a half-hour later, Busch got to play defense.
“During the whole debate I’ve met with everyone involved,” said Busch, D- Anne Arundel, rattling off the racing industry, horse breeding and other representatives he spoke with.
“It is extremely hurtful to be accused of using race on an issue such as this,” Busch said, “I don’t think it’s motivated on any sort of race and gender. It should rise and fall on its merits.”
Busch argued at a meeting in a black church that slot machine approval will largely affect low-income and poor people.
The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Baltimore Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said he asked Busch to speak at St. Paul Community Church in Baltimore.
Ehrlich’s comments and Busch’s rebuttal stole the show at a jammed Ways and Means Committee hearing, where the public brought its opinion to bear on the lawmakers who must decide whether to legalize slots to fill a $1 billion gap in the state’s budget over the next two years.
Two-and-a-half hours before the hearing, anti-slots protesters began chanting, while inside every seat was already full. The list of witnesses on one of the 11 bills heard stretched five pages, including both opponents and proponents of Ehrlich’s proposal.
Education wins 61 percent of the gambling revenue in Ehrlich’s plan for 10,500 machines at the four tracks. The tracks would take home 23 percent, while governments would get 3 percent to prepare for gaming-related problems.
Prompted by track complaints that their share was too low, Ehrlich’s advisers are re-evaluating the plan, but have yet to release final figures. Because Ehrlich’s numbers have not been submitted, and his Cabinet members could not provide a date when they would be ready, Ways and Means Chairman Sheila Hixson provided one.
The committee needs to conference with Appropriations Monday, she said, “If we don’t have your numbers, we will be dealing with our own numbers.”
That confusion has muddled slots’ prospects, Busch said.
“Every day that goes by lessens the chance of this bill passing,” Busch said.
If opponents win and slots fail, Ehrlich said, “We’ll get the scissors out. That’s going to be a nightmare.”
Renewing his vow to block any income or sales taxes to force the Legislature to pass his slots bill, Ehrlich used education to back his pitch before the committee, aided by State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick.
“It is unprecedented for the State Board of Education to take a position on fiscal policy,” she said.
Revenue estimates in the slots plan will be essential to fund the mandates laid out by the Thornton Commission, an education funding reform committee, Grasmick and Ehrlich said.
“If not this, how?” said Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.
Slots opponents brought in support from nearby Virginia. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf said he was for fellow Republican Ehrlich, with whom he served in Congress, and believed he would be an excellent governor, but joined Busch in saying slots were not a partisan issue.
Wolf decried slot machines as harmful to families and asked Maryland to follow a national study’s findings and wait.
While Ehrlich said he is not attempting to sway moral opponents, he said blocking slots would punish the state’s $2 billion equine industry, which has been losing to Delaware and West Virginia.
“We’re not playing on a level playing field,” said Alvin Foreman, President of the Maryland Thoroughbred Association.
But the restaurant association fired back, “People only have so much disposable income,” said Tom Stone.
An Ehrlich spokesman said the industry will receive $322 million from Maryland residents that would usually be spent elsewhere. Similar hearings are planned today in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, said, regardless of whether Ehrlich provides a final bill. – 30 – CNS-2-25-03