ANNAPOLIS – House revenue committee chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D- Montgomery, was pulling an April Fools joke Tuesday when she told an apprehensive hearing room that Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s slot machine plan “had been withdrawn by the sponsor.”
But it was no joke when House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said after the slots hearing that he had counted the votes and prospects look dim for the governor’s premiere legislation.
“The House has been fairly clear about its message throughout the session. I don’t think anybody feels comfortable (passing the plan),” Busch said.
Busch’s decision to try to kill slots in the House Ways and Means Committee comes at the same time that Ehrlich stated he would rather reject sales or income tax increases than pass slots.
Both moves raise serious questions about where money will come from to offset the state’s rising health care costs and the mandated spending increases for public education.
A 1-cent increase in the sales tax would raise about $600 million, the same amount legislative analysts expect to earn from slot machines. Combined, the measures would almost offset the $1.3 billion increase in annual education spending, but the governor and House seem unwilling to pass either right now.
Although Republican Minority Leader Al Redmer Jr. is confident slots would pass the full House by more than 2-to-1 if it got that far, he said there are no plans in the works to finagle the bill out of committee, should Busch leverage power to shoot it down.
“The hearing today is inconsequential,” Redmer said Tuesday. “Everyone on the committee has read the bill . . . and made up their minds.”
From the questions, it appears the majority of minds are against slots. Delegate after delegate accused Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula of errors in the plan and for refusing to consider sales and income tax hikes. “If you say we can’t talk about X and we can’t talk about Y, we run out letters in the alphabet,” said Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s. Criticizing the plan as one that could ruin three blue-collar neighborhoods and give track owners a monopoly, Busch said, “If this is positive change, I choose the alternative . . . “If slots are so great, why aren’t county executives coming to Annapolis saying, `Why not here?'” Legalizing 10,500 slot machines at the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft race tracks, plus 1,000 machines for the track to be built in Cumberland, to generate up to $700 million a year for education was the jewel of Ehrlich’s much-maligned fix to the state’s more than $2 billion budget deficit.
The Senate calls approving the slots plan the only thing they have done to address Maryland’s fiscal problems, but it wants to adjourn Monday, the scheduled end of the session. Passing slots over a House committee’s rejection would likely require overtime.
Ehrlich still wants slots and doesn’t want taxes, spokesmen said, offering the possibility for an extended session to continue debating the issue.
“Extending the session for slots after a committee defeat would be similar to Maryland saying to Michigan State, `Could we keep playing the game because we’re behind,'” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery.
If slots die, a bill the House passed 126-11 last month to study all aspects of the legalization of the machines could prove a chance to keep their prospects alive for next year.
Lawmakers will face an additional $700 million deficit when they convene next January.
Without slots, “Thornton is derailed,” and “There will be substantial personnel layoffs,” said Budget Secretary James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr., referring to a school funding plan and admonishing the committee to do whatever it takes to approve slots this year.
Slots could provide between $200 million and $400 million toward the deficit, DiPaula said, creating “dire consequences” without the new revenue.
Delaying slots one year for study and renewed debate will cost the state $700 million, DiPaula said. Despite the governor and speaker’s rejection of some revenue options, House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Hixson said, “Everything is on the table.” – 30 – CNS-4-1-03