ANNAPOLIS – Both Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s office claim new poll results justify their divergent views on expanding slots in Maryland.
Most Marylanders support slots, and an even larger majority wants the state to keep financial control over slot machine facilities, according to the Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies survey released Monday.
Busch has argued for state control over slots venues and was instrumental in killing Ehrlich’s slots proposals in the last General Assembly session. He wants maximum government control, significant consumer protections and the most profit possible going to the state.
“I think it strengthens my argument on that part,” Busch said. The poll’s release two-and-a-half months before Assembly opens Jan. 14 will give him leverage to push for as much state control and profit as possible, he said.
Ehrlich included slot machine approval in his campaign and made gambling profits a cornerstone of his first budget to help pay for education reform. However, his plan would have put much of the earnings into racetrack owners’ hands. Track owners, too, would have had significant control over the slot machines they owned.
“This poll doesn’t tell anybody anything they didn’t know,” said Paul Schurick, Ehrlich communications director. Rather than supporting Busch’s arguments, Schurick said, it bolsters Ehrlich’s proposals.
Its release just before the session “will help legislators understand what we’ve known for a long time,” Schurick said.
Pollster Patrick Gonzales’ October survey showed 56 percent of Marylanders favor slots, essentially unchanged from his August numbers. The earlier poll also found Ehrlich’s job approval was 57 percent.
Polls from a year earlier showed less than a majority supporting slots.
The October poll was also the first time Gonzales asked respondents about slots plan details, such as government oversight and the location of slots facilities.
“This is a good roadmap for the Legislature” to craft bill proposals, Gonzales said.
Gonzales surveyed 831 registered Maryland voters by telephone in late October, and the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Just 11 percent of respondents said race tracks should control slots facilities and give a percentage of the profits to the state, while 62 percent said the state should “retain financial control of any slot machine facilities.”
Those options mimicked Ehrlich and Busch’s positions “in a broad, general sense,” Gonzales said.
The poll also addressed the location of slots parlors, with 34 percent of respondents saying slots, if approved, should only be at race tracks. But 43 percent of respondents agreed with Busch’s arguments that slots should not go exclusively to race tracks.
His poll shows Busch “seems to have a huge majority of the will of the people behind what he’s been talking about,” Gonzales said.
“It certainly vindicates what he has been saying,” agreed Sheila Hixson, House Ways and Means Committee chairwoman.
But Schurick argued the poll’s government oversight question was so vaguely worded that it encompassed Ehrlich’s plan, too. The governor had proposed close government monitoring of individual slot machines, Schurick said.
“I see that as another endorsement of the Ehrlich plan,” Schurick said, referring to the majority of respondents favoring state oversight.
Ehrlich “still believes his proposal from last session is the best deal for the state,” said spokesman Henry Fawell, adding that last session’s plan — which passed in the Senate before dying in the House — will be the basis for this year’s proposal.
But Busch said he believes the poll gives him good ammunition for his positions in the next session, and he opposes Ehrlich’s plans.
“I think everybody agrees,” Busch said, “that last year’s bill was not very well thought out.”