ANNAPOLIS – For the fourth consecutive year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plans to back legislation that would allow slot machines at Maryland racetracks, despite defeats in each of his previous attempts.
“There’s no greater advocate for horse racing and horse farms than Gov. Ehrlich,” said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.
Ehrlich’s efforts to pass the slots bill, which was on a list released Thursday previewing his legislative agenda, may be more difficult this year because the state’s large budget surplus has eased pressure on state legislators to fund new sources of revenue.
Ehrlich had argued in past years that gambling revenue was needed by the state to fund important programs and to save Maryland racing. In 2006, however, the state’s coffers are flush with a $1.2 billion surplus – reflected by the $29.6 billion budget proposed by Ehrlich Tuesday.
“Any enthusiasm for gambling is waning among the legislators. It’s tough to see what the justification is,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, a leading opponent of past slots legislation.
Fawell acknowledged the challenge that passing the slots bill will likely present, laying blame for past defeats at the feet of Busch.
“The governor is not naive about the Speaker’s unwillingness to negotiate, but he made a commitment to the citizens of Maryland to get [the slots legislation] through and he’s attempting to do that,” Fawell said.
The bill may closely resemble its predecessors. It is expected to allow up to 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks, and an undesignated location in the I-95 corridor.
Despite their past victories and favorable position due to the budget surplus, opponents of the legislation are not yet ready to declare victory.
“The governor in this state is the strongest chief executive of any state in the country, so it’s always going to be a difficult fight,” said W. Minor Carter, an Annapolis lawyer and anti-slots lobbyist.
Carter said defeat of the slots bill is important to controlling the gambling lobby, whose contaminating influence he believes is underscored by the Congressional scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Other bills included in Ehrlich’s legislative package are aimed at encouraging energy conservation, promoting biotechnology research in Maryland and protecting children from sex offenders.