ANNAPOLIS – A cool House panel listened to off-the-cuff testimony Tuesday from Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. in an eleventh-hour attempt to garner support for his slot machine bill from the committee that killed his proposal last year by a 16-5 vote.
“Racing is part of Maryland’s past, it’s part of our present and we simply ask that racing be part of our future,” Ehrlich told a pro-slots rally before an afternoon hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee.
Waving signs and chanting “Slots at tracks” and “No new taxes,” a few hundred racing industry supporters rallied behind the governor’s bill, saying slots would save jobs and keep needed dollars from flowing into neighboring states’ pockets.
“Maryland racing won’t exist in two years if we don’t have slots,” said Brad MacKinnon, owner of MacKinnon Racing Stables in Bowie. “Maryland used to be the second-biggest circuit on the East Coast but now we’re at the bottom of the barrel.”
“We’re losing jobs and losing them quickly and don’t nobody seem to care,” said Ruby McElwee, a cook at Pimlico Racetrack.
The horse industry in Maryland accounts for $1.5 billion in annual revenues and about 20,000 jobs, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Speaking without prepared testimony and joined by Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, the governor told lawmakers slots were critical to the future of the horse industry, and told committee members “this is the year to move this bill.”
Ehrlich campaigned in 2002 on a no-new-taxes, pro-slots platform, and since his election has persistently pushed slots as a fiscally responsible solution to the state’s $800 million budget gap and a viable education funding source.
He also rejected putting slots on the ballot for voters to decide.
“We get paid to make the difficult decisions,” Ehrlich said. “(A slots referendum) would be passing the ball when the appropriate decision-making body is the General Assembly.”
With only 13 days left in the annual 90-day session, Ehrlich added to the sense of urgency already pervading the slots debate by reminding the House committee that Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to pass a bill to put slots at 12 locations across the state.
“Those will be additional venues for Marylanders (to go to gamble), and I’m tired of it,” the governor said.
Two of Maryland’s immediate neighbors — Delaware and West Virginia — already have slot machines and, according to Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula, are raking in more than $300 million per year from Maryland residents crossing the borders to gamble.
The Senate’s altered version of Ehrlich’s slots bill calls for 15,500 slot machines distributed among three racetrack locations and three other sites elsewhere in the state. The administration said slots could provide 97 percent of the remaining funds needed to completely implement the Thornton education reform package.
Ehrlich told the House panel he was committed to funding Thornton, with or without a slots bill.
“If slots are defeated, Thornton will be funded,” the governor said. “We’ve cut about $1.4 billion already (from the budget), and I think we can find another $500 (million) to $600 million more.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, proposed his own solution to future education funding last week by ramming a $1 billion tax package through the House.
The largely party-line vote saw almost a quarter of Democrats oppose the proposal. The package faces an uphill battle in the Senate, and almost no chance with Ehrlich, who has steadfastly opposed any increase in sales or income taxes.
A committee vote on the governor’s slots bill has not been scheduled.
— CNS reporter Zenitha Prince contributed to this story.
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