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Legislative Black Caucus Divided on Slots

By Zenitha Prince
Capital News Service
Thursday, Jan. 29, 2004

ANNAPOLIS - Black lawmakers called for guidance to unify the Democratic stance on slot machine proposals at a meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus Thursday.

The appeal came with a slew of conflicting reactions to House Speaker Michael E. Busch's recommendations for amending Gov. Robert Ehrlich's slots bill, which was shot down in the House last year.

Busch recapped recommendations from a House Ways and Means Committee report, the result of an extended study on the socioeconomic effects of gambling in Maryland. The House plan backs state control and ownership of any slot machines and calls for minimum impact on host communities.

Busch also said any slots approval should turn revenues to education and he would like to link approval to a sales tax increase, also for schools.

Ehrlich, however, proposes two off-track gambling sites along Interstate 95 with a limit of 4,000 gambling terminals. This in addition to 11,000 machines distributed among Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway, and an anticipated Allegany County track.

Ehrlich's proposal devotes 46 percent of revenues to education; 39 percent to the tracks, $250,000 to health benefits for Maryland jockeys and the rest to impacted local and state governments.

Legislative Black Caucus member opinions of the plans vary widely - from disapproval of any plan placing gambling venues in their jurisdictions to approval of slots with conditions.

Delegate Salima Marriott, chairwoman of the Baltimore House delegation, said her concern was the "proliferation" of slots and the economic development of the Pimlico area.

"We need to make (Pimlico) a tourist destination," she said, "(and) to bring tourist dollars out of downtown and up to uptown."

Building an upscale casino with fewer slot machines at the racetrack to attract more high-end consumers was her recommendation for attracting funds.

Delegate Nathaniel Oaks, D-Baltimore, agreed with Busch, saying slots should be placed in more affluent counties and then revenues infused into depressed communities.

"If we don't have slots at Pimlico, but we have another site that does bring money to that area, I can agree with that," Oaks said.

Members were also split on Busch's sales tax link to increase funding for education.

"I don't think we could pass a bill with a penny increase on the sales tax," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Such conflicting stances have driven a wedge among Democrats, of whom black legislators comprise 43 percent, said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George's.

She called for a set of guiding principles to solidify the party's strategy for the session, an appeal later taken up by caucus Second Vice Chairwoman Sen. Verna Jones, D-Baltimore.

Black legislators did have overarching concerns that would dictate their support of any slots legislation, Jones said: minority equity ownership; infusion of slots revenue into deprived communities, including funds for treating gambling and other addictions, and, primarily, increased education funding.

Though slots have been touted as an answer to the Thornton Commission's mandate to fully fund public education, many black legislators deemed the bill's allocation to education inadequate.

All nodded in agreement when Busch admonished: "You have to remain committed to Thornton and you have to hold the governor's feet to the fire so that he remains committed."

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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