Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. launched a fresh attempt at winning approval for slot machine gambling yesterday, adding a promise of $100 million more in school construction money to try to leverage support from Washington area lawmakers.
The Republican governor said it is only reluctantly that he has revived the bitter debate over legalized gambling, which has strained his relations with top lawmakers and consumed much of his energy since he took office two years ago.
Gov. Ehrlich did not detail how the proceeds from slots would be split.
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He likened the experience to repeatedly watching the same bad movie and challenged House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to change the ending. He urged Busch to drop his opposition, if not for the additional education aid than for a public Ehrlich says is clamoring to play slots in Maryland.
"The people of Maryland demand it," Ehrlich said. "The clear majority view in this state is to allow it."
The governor released his slots proposal, which will be formally submitted Monday in the House and Senate, along with a dozen other programs he will attempt to usher through the 2005 legislative session. Among them are bills aimed at protecting children from lead poisoning, strengthening penalties for teenagers who drive drunk and providing tax relief to veterans.
But the governor anticipated that the most contentious debate would be reserved for the question of whether, and how, to legalize slot machines.
His bill proposes placing 15,500 video lottery terminals at six locations across the state, including 3,500 each at two horse racing tracks in Prince George's County, and at the Pimlico track in Baltimore. He would place 1,000 machines at a track in Allegany County, and 4,000 others could go at two additional sites.
Ehrlich declined to detail how the proceeds would be split between the state and racetrack owners. But a similar bill he proposed last year would have eventually brought the state an estimated $700 million a year, to be spent largely on education and givebacks for horse racing prizes.
This year's proposal includes a provision that reserves $100 million a year for school construction. Ehrlich also added a plan to redistribute education aid so that additional money goes to jurisdictions where running a school is more costly -- including Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Even slots supporters, however, expressed doubt that those sweeteners would be enough to peel off opponents in the House who have blocked the governor's initiative for the past two years.
A sizable group of lawmakers from Prince George's, in particular, has steadfastly opposed any initiative that puts slot machine venues in their county.
"I don't see any sign that the mood has changed," said Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), a slots supporter. "The governor will have to do a lot of work, to really lead on this issue, if there is any chance that opinions in our delegation will change."
One of the issues that remains vexing, particularly for Prince George's lawmakers, is the competition between powerful interests that want title to one of the few gambling licenses the state will parcel out.
As in prior years, racetrack owners Joseph A. DeFrancis, William Rickman and Magna Entertainment have all been angling for at least one slots license.
Then there is Peter Angelos, whose family recently completed its purchase of Rosecroft Raceway harness track. His lobbyist said yesterday that Angelos is intensely interested in seeing slots at his family's track.
At the same time, lobbyists for National Harbor developer Milton V. Peterson have vowed to fight any bill that puts slots at Rosecroft and not at Peterson's $560 million convention center and hotel complex, which is being built just a few miles away.
Ehrlich's bill does not resolve this conflict, and yesterday he did not indicate that he had high hopes for an easy solution.
"It's a very complicated matter," Ehrlich said.
Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's) said he believes that the delegation is "opposed to slots, period, whether at one venue or at three. I don't see any compromise that would change that."
But not everyone is so pessimistic. Gerard E. Evans, who represents Angelos, said he believes the governor's decision to tie slots to school construction funding will help sway reluctant Prince George's lawmakers.
"It puts directly in front of members what's at stake," Evans said. "There is a clear pot of money that will help the children of Prince George's County, and it is tied to the enactment of the slots bill."
Ehrlich said he considers his bill "a vehicle," meaning it could change dramatically before being passed. "We will await the speaker's actions," he said.
Busch said yesterday that he will give the governor's proposal "a full, fair, and timely hearing" and did not rule out letting it move to the House floor for a vote.
"If the rest of the body is willing, that's certainly a possibility," Busch said.