By Dan Genz and Tom Lobianco
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland senators told Gov. Robert Ehrlich to bring passion into the slot machine legalization debate and work with the General Assembly to solve the state’s long-term budget crisis.
After the second of two days of General Assembly hearings Wednesday, Ehrlich pledged at least 50 percent of slots revenue to education, but his budget team could not produce final numbers, desperately awaited by the lawmakers who will begin deciding the matter Monday.
While Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.’s adamant and eloquent support nearly guaranteed some sort of plan would get to the floor, his Budget and Taxation Committee assaulted numerous fronts of Ehrlich’s proposal, demanding more information and support.
“When you talk about the racing industry . . . it is coming from the heart,” said Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s. “I would like to see that same emotion when you talk about this.”
Ehrlich’s budget depends on slot-machine revenue to close the state’s $1.7 billion two-year budget gap. He originally proposed a slot machine bill that would produce about $1 billion in two years by putting more than 10,000 machines at four racetracks. He allotted 61 percent of proceeds to education and 23 percent to the racing industry, and other earmarks for local governments and race purses.
The governor has since scrapped that plan, after complaints from the racing industry that they can’t survive on their share, but no new details have emerged from the second floor of the State House.
On Wednesday, Ehrlich continued to use the same charts he’s been using since introducing his budget Jan. 17, while one senator came prepared with his own.
“You have to be honest to people and say this is not going to solve the problem (from 2005 to 2008),” said committee Vice Chairman Patrick Hogan, D- Montgomery, holding a chart showing the state would continue facing billion- dollar deficits in the future unless other actions were taken.
Lottery revenue is addictive to lawmakers, said Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel.
“Is this the road to full casinos?” he asked.
“We draw lines as legislators,” Ehrlich said, adding he would not endorse the expansion of slot machines to other venues under his administration.
Much of Ehrlich’s Senate testimony mirrored his speech Tuesday to the House Ways and Means Committee, but the governor did not continue his accusation that House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, is using race to defeat slots by enlisting black clergy in the opposition.
Lessening the affect of his attack without weakening his words, Ehrlich tried to kill the race-baiting issue.
“I simply pointed it out,” he said after leaving the hearing. “It was a ridiculous way to approach this. . . . Clearly black pastors were targeted, but I’ll take his word for it.”
Ehrlich pointed out that he and Busch have breakfast together and said, “Our friendship is much deeper.”
Stumping with Ehrlich for the second day in a row, State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said the type of revenue enhancement slots provides is essential for making Maryland public education more effective for poorer students, those with special needs or who speak foreign languages.
Education funding is an issue “of adequacy” Grasmick said, and not a perk, but essential to the public education system.
Ehrlich won crucial support for his proposal by promising to fund the recommendations of the Thornton Commission, an education funding reform panel, with slots revenue.
The Legislature passed the recommendations for increased funding last session, but didn’t include a complete revenue stream, which Ehrlich preyed on in his testimony. Ehrlich has told lawmakers that without slots, Thornton is a “pipe dream.”
“After slots, what? Where do we go?” Hogan asked.
The House’s leading slots supporter said increased taxes, budget cuts and slots revenue will all be necessary to fund better education.
Testifying after Ehrlich and his team left, House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, said slots revenues will never completely fund Thornton — it wouldn’t even begin to mature until 2007, he said. In 2008, the annually increasing Thornton price tag hits $1.3 billion, dwarfing slots proceeds.
Rawlings’ pro-business bill cuts $250 million in license fees, compared to Ehrlich, who wrote $350 million in one-time fees into his budget.
If Ehrlich lacks the passion for slots, according to Currie, Rawlings makes up for it. “We feel your passion and it has touched us.” – 30 – CNS-2-26-03