ANNAPOLIS – The man who stopped Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s maiden slot machine proposal last year drew his line in the sand Thursday, saying slots legislation would not pass the House this year without an adequate funding source for education.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, also said the House will not initiate a slots bill of its own, despite a monthslong study of the issue.
Ehrlich last week revived his slots proposal from 2003 that then passed narrowly in the Senate, but died in the House. Instead, Busch ordered up a study of extended gambling.
That study’s results, released Friday, were neither an endorsement of legalized gambling nor the beginnings of a piece of legislation, said House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery. Rather it is a “menu of what we would like to see in a piece of legislation if it passed the House.”
Busch’s hardening of his position on expanded gambling, worsens a growing rift among the state’s top leaders.
Ehrlich strongly opposes tax increases and balanced his budget last year with deep budget cuts to higher education and health care. His pending 2005 budget was balanced with a series of short-term revenue sources, but it also excised $45 million for public schools called for under the Thornton school reform plan.
His slots proposals have had the backing of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, a position that’s unsettled his relationship with Busch. He was not available Thursday to discuss Busch’s remarks.
Ehrlich has called on lawmakers to pass a “clean slots bill,” with the money used to restore education funding, and he’s asked for bipartisan cooperation. Yet he’s firm on his opposition to tax hikes.
“The governor will veto any legislation that calls for an increase in sales or income taxes,” Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said.
Ehrlich submitted his new slots legislation last week, calling for two off-track gambling locations along the Interstate 95 corridor between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, in addition to slots at four racetracks.
Busch said he was pleased the governor outlined a competitive bid process to determine the location of the two off-track sites, and acknowledged gambling does not have to be tied to racetracks.
While many slots supporters have argued the gambling expansion is necessary to save the state’s historic and ailing horseracing industry, Busch said support for racing industry and funding for education are two separate issues.
“The racing industry in Maryland has been at a disadvantage, but if we’re going to give money to racing, there has to be an accountability standard there,” Busch said. “Racing . . . needs to come into the 21st century and hold its activities during the hours when people are enjoying their leisure time.”
Slots legalization is not an easy issue, Busch acknowledged. But the focus should be on education and its funding sources.
“The main question is whether this (slots) is the revenue source, coupled with others, that can make it all work,” Busch said. “It’s maybe not the best revenue source, but it’s the only one being entertained by our governor.”
The speaker highlighted the report’s recommendations of state ownership of gambling facilities, and emphasized the importance of maximizing the state’s profit.
“I think the general consensus is that we need to stop the flow of money that’s going out of the state,” Busch said. “If we’re trying to do that, it doesn’t make sense to put slots at the tracks; they’re mostly in the central part of the state . . . it’s not going to capture the money that’s going out-of-state.”
The House committee report also concluded that state ownership and competitive bidding for the operation of off-track slots venues would also maximize the state’s benefit.
“There’s a good case to be made for state ownership,” Busch said. “And competitive bidding would provide a better sense of the market value of an off-track gambling site.”