ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich was in a familiar place Wednesday as he continued his third attempt to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland.
“I do have a sense of deja vu, Mr. Chairman,” Ehrlich said to Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, who presides over the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
The committee heard testimony from Ehrlich and numerous other supporters of the slots bill. It would place taxes and fees on slot machine operators and use the revenue to fund millions of dollars in improvements in public schools each year.
The bill is almost identical to Ehrlich’s bill last year, which died in the House Ways and Means Committee, despite support from the Senate.
Starting this summer, a total 15,500 slots would be allowed for licensing in the state — 3,500 terminals each at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway; 1,000 at a planned track in Allegany County. A total 4,000 slot machines would be allowed at two nontrack venues. The bill creates a commission to determine those sites.
The Republican governor had been in a Senate hearing on slots before, but this time, slots opponents sat this one out in protest.
“Our hope is that our absence will call attention to the obvious fact: The Senate is not considering the slots issue in a responsible and deliberative fashion and is failing the people of Maryland,” said Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of Stop Slots Maryland.
He was joined by a handful of other slots opponents, including state delegates Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, and Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City.
“It’s clear that the Senate has been hijacked and turned into a rubber stamp” to legalize slots,” Franchot said.
With almost no opposition present, the committee heard a lengthy parade of racing industry envoys (who said slots would rejuvenate their ailing livelihood), trade unionists (who said slots would bring new jobs to Maryland) and African-American church pastors (who said slots revenue would save their congregations’ deteriorating urban neighborhoods).
Ehrlich kicked off the testimony by highlighting a “somewhat underanalyzed” aspect of the issue. He warned that, absent slots, horse farmers in rural Maryland would be lured to neighboring states with more gaming, and their vacated land would become bait for inappropriate development.
“When those farms get up, they’re gone. When the cement’s poured, the cement’s there,” he said. “Those farms are never to return.”
But the biggest selling point for the slots initiative is that it creates an Education Trust Fund.
Some 46 percent of slots revenue from four racetracks and an undetermined cut from nonracetrack facilities would go into the trust fund. That fund each year would provide at least $100 million for public school construction and $50 million for the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which compensates school districts with higher operating costs.
Ehrlich’s capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 already devotes $157 million for school construction, but does not fund the index, part of the Thornton law for improving public schools.
Five percent of slots proceeds would go to enhancing horse race purses and to assist the horse breeding industry. That figure would increase to 6 percent the next year. License-holders would receive 39 percent the receipts.
Minor Carter, a lobbyist for Stops Slots Maryland and the only speaker wholly against slots, said they will not fix the state’s problems.
“Gambling doesn’t achieve anything. All it does is take your money,” he said. “It’s not like it builds a suit or builds a car, where there’s industry that builds up around it.”
In the last three years, the committee — and the Senate as a whole — has been more accommodating to Ehrlich’s slots initiatives than the House of Delegates. That’s thanks in no small part to the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
“We’ve waited too long for this issue to move forward,” said Miller, who sat with Ehrlich during testimony.
Miller’s counterpart in the House, Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has been the chief opponent to Ehrlich’s slots bill the last three years. Busch has said voters should decide in a referendum whether to legalize slots.