ANNAPOLIS – Seeming to defy a governor of his own party, U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, told a packed House hearing Tuesday that lawmakers should not allow slot machines into Maryland communities “just to make governing easy and expedient.”
Gilchrest was the main attraction during a Ways and Means Committee hearing on about 15 gambling bills – the opening of the House debate on slot machines that pointedly excluded Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s plan to put slots at four racetracks and other locations.
Tuesday was just a preface to next week’s abbreviated hearing on the Senate’s slots bill – a retooled version of Ehrlich’s – when only the sponsor of the bill will be permitted to testify.
“We need to fully fund Thornton (education reforms),” Gilchrest said, praising another Ehrlich plan to impose a surcharge on sewer customers to clean up polluting treatment plants. “The flush fees are a great idea; Marylanders are willing to pay to solve these problems.”
While the congressman would not say whether he supported a tax increase like the $1 billion package proposed Monday by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, he said revenue sources needed serious debate and discussion.
Gilchrest testified against a bill sponsored by Delegate Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, to locate 10,000 slot machines at four racetracks in the state pending approval from local governments hosting those tracks. A $125 million gambling license fee would be payable to the state’s general fund, with about 50 percent of all slots revenue going to the Education Trust Fund.
The congressman said he remained quiet on the slots issue last year, when Ehrlich first floated the idea, because the facilities were confined to tracks, but said the proposed expansion to three off-track sites would have a “really adverse negative impact on the economy and government programs in the state.”
“I’m not breaking with the party, this is not a partisan issue,” Gilchrest said. “We in this state should not depend on people of lower income to fund (these larger priorities).”
Gilchrest was also adamant that he was not opposing Ehrlich’s policy position on slots, but rather was exercising his right to offer a different view. The two served together in Maryland’s congressional delegation during the 1990s.
An Ehrlich spokesman said Gilchrest’s testimony was unlikely to have much influence on the committee.
“The governor obviously doesn’t agree with the congressman, but he was exercising his First Amendment rights,” Shareese DeLeaver said. “No one ever said slots was the easy way, but the governor maintains that it is the fiscally responsible way.”
The Senate’s version of Ehrlich’s slots proposal calls for 15,500 slot machines at six sites – three racetracks and three off-track locations – and earmarks $60 million in licensing fees to fund part of the Thornton education reforms that gives need-based aid to counties.
The bill cleared the Senate by a comfortable margin compared to last year’s narrow 25-21 roll call vote.
It is unclear whether Busch will allow floor debate and a roll call vote on the proposal – despite House Republicans’ demands during a news conference Friday.
Davis defended his bill saying the effects of slots in neighboring Delaware and West Virginia amounted to Maryland already having slot machines.
“To say we don’t want slots in Maryland is a misnomer,” Davis said. “We already have them. Just because we cross lines and borders, it doesn’t matter. We get the problems (associated with gambling) and Delaware and West Virginia get the money.”
Davis also proposed adding an amendment to include Ocean Downs in Worcester County as a potential location.
“All communities in the state should be on the table, and we should allow the subdivisions to decide whether to allow slots in their communities,” Davis said, adding that the state fairgrounds in Timonium might also be included.
Ehrlich has steadfastly refused to include Ocean Downs in any slots legislation because of local opposition. The administration has remained non-committal about including Timonium as a potential slots location.
Other bills considered during a tumultuous afternoon that saw hundreds of people crowding the halls of the House office building and a standing-room only crowd in the hearing room, included legislation to prevent individuals receiving state aid from entering a gambling facility.
The bill, sponsored by Delegate John G. Trueschler, R-Baltimore County, would create personal gaming cards to confirm the identity of Maryland citizens entering a slots parlor and allow operators to run the name through a database of state aid recipients, bankruptcy filings and child-support scofflaws. The cards would not track the gambling habits of individuals once they entered the facility.
The panel was scheduled to resume testimony after a 4 p.m. floor debate and voting session.