ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and four of his closest political allies Wednesday presented the administration’s retooled slots proposal to friendly senators on the Budget and Taxation Committee hearing.
“Here we are again; I really have very little to add. I’m pro-slots, pro-racing and we need to pass a bill,” Ehrlich said.
The Senate passed Ehrlich’s original slots package last year with the strong support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who asked the governor to testify at the hearing and accompanied him there.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick joined them for the rare gubernatorial committee presentation.
Concerns about minorities and surrounding communities – not philosophical objections – preoccupied the Senate panel.
Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore, proposed amending the governor’s bill to establish a community council to advise local and state lawmakers about the local impact of expanding gambling.
Wednesday’s more than five hours of subdued testimony could be the calm before the storm expected in the House.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who was responsible for the death of Ehrlich’s first slots package, has said a slots bill will not pass the House without another source of revenue to completely fund education – something Ehrlich has disdained.
And a slots bill will not originate in the House this year, said both Busch and Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery.
Hixson’s committee last week released its final study on the impact of expanded gambling and recommended state-owned slots venues located closer to state borders and away from homes. The governor’s bill, however, would locate off-track slots parlors in the Interstate 95 corridor between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
Ehrlich touted the changes to his bill as designed to meet House, and particularly Busch’s, concerns.
“This bill deserves a full and fair vote on both floors,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich also acknowledged slots will not satisfy all the needs of horse racing in Maryland, adding the industry needed “to get its act together.”
Schaefer, a former governor, said he was weary of the budget question and urged lawmakers to do what was necessary to answer it.
“Slots is only a partial answer; if I could find another revenue source maybe I wouldn’t support slots, but we need to balance the budget,” Schaefer said. “This is the year the budget must be balanced.”
But revenues from slots may not be as quick a fix as supporters want, said Budget and Policy Analyst Warren Deschenaux. Expanded gambling won’t produce cash until 2006, according to his department’s analysis.
The Maryland Jockey Club and Magna Entertainment disagreed with Deschenaux’s analysis. They said temporary slots facilities could be operational by February 2005.
Budget concerns aside, NocasiNo-Maryland Co-chairwoman Barbara Knickelbein asked lawmakers to “heavily weigh the dark side of gambling,” that included increased crime, drug addiction and poverty.