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Ehrlich Resurrects Slots Debate for Schools

By Mike Torralba
Capital News Service
Friday, Jan. 21, 2005

ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Robert Ehrlich pulled the lever on his slot-machine initiative for the third time Friday but didn't expect to win, even though he said Marylanders "demand it."

The proposal failed each of the previous two years, so Ehrlich said he has "no unrealistic expectations" that the General Assembly would pass this year's bill to bring video slot machines to Maryland.

Asked at a news conference how lawmakers can be pressured to pass his slots bill, Ehrlich said: "The people -- it's the ultimate hammer."

"The clear majority view of the state is to allow" slots, Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich's slots initiative is nearly identical to the one he fought for in the 2004 legislative session. New to the governor's initiative is $100 million of slots revenue to be earmarked specifically for school construction. His proposed budget, released Wednesday, already calls for $155 million for new school buildings.

The initiative was just one of more than a dozen the Republican governor presented to the mostly-Democratic Legislature Friday. It was also the only one not given to lawmakers to solicit their support.

However, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, has been a strong supporter of slots. His counterpart in the House, Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has been the chief opponent to slot machines since the question arose two years ago.

Miller said the money is badly needed to get schoolchildren out of portable classrooms.

"If we were in trailers all day long, we would be passing bills" on slots, Miller said.

Busch could not be reached for comment and did not return messages left with his office. He has led the House in blocking previous slots legislation, saying their revenues would not be a stable enough source for education funding.

A poll conducted for The Sun of Baltimore earlier this month showed public support for slots in Maryland has increased since neighboring Pennsylvania legalized them last year. The poll of 800 likely voters found that 56 percent supported slots, up from 52 percent one year ago. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent points.

But a poll conducted around the same time by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, an independent polling firm, showed support for slots slipping to 49 percent, down from 55 percent in August. That poll had a similar sampling and the same margin of error as the Baltimore Sun poll.

"They're tired, they're angry, they're frustrated, and they just want us to deal with this issue," Ehrlich said of his constituents, without referring to any particular poll.

Ehrlich said he has asked Miller to rally support for slots among the Prince George's County delegation. It is one of the largest in the General Assembly and is split between slots supporters and opponents, who say slots would be a tax on the poor. Miller also represents part of Prince George's County.

Ehrlich's slots initiative also earmarks $50 million to assist school districts with higher operating costs, part of the Thornton law to improve public schools.

Money would also go to local development grants for road improvements, public safety and other needs in counties with slots. Additional funding would go to funding more lucrative purses for Maryland's tracks and to horse breeders and medical care for jockeys. The proposal also would devote some funding to helping gambling addicts.

The measure would allow 11,500 video slot machines at horse racetracks in Maryland and 4,000 at two non-racetrack venues.

A racetrack licensee would have to contract between 10 and 15 percent of its slots investment to minority-owned business.

Here are the other initiatives Ehrlich released Friday:

An overhaul in medical malpractice laws that would be more far-reaching than the measure enacted by the Legislature in the special session that immediately preceded the 2005 General Assembly.

A bill to strengthen the government's ability to enforce regulations on the level of lead in buildings. Its goal is to eliminate lead poisoning among children in Maryland by 2010.

A set of measures to improve child-welfare services.

A trio of bills to improve the safety of young drivers, including one that would revoke for as many as three years the license of a driver under the age of 21 who is convicted of drunk or drugged driving.

Homeland security and public safety initiatives, including $12.5 million to improve fingerprint identification.

A bill to strengthen laws against the intimidation of witnesses to crimes.

An expansion of income-tax breaks for military retirees.

Tax breaks for business involved in research and development of biotechnology and other advanced technology.

Tax breaks for movie production companies that shoot their films in Maryland. The governor points to Walt Disney Co.'s film studio, which recently moved shooting of its movie titled "Annapolis" to Pennsylvania.

Capital bonds worth $2.4 million for health centers in Allegany and Prince George's counties and Baltimore.

Capital News Service reporter Deitrich Curry contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 University of Maryland College of Journalism

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