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Miller Warns His Party on Slots

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page B01

One of Maryland's most senior, and most partisan, Democratic leaders said yesterday that his party will carry the burden of a state budget crisis if the legislature fails to legalize slot machine gambling.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) joined Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) at a news conference in Upper Marlboro and predicted that Democrats would face dire consequences for not passing slots legislation.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich speaks with the mayor of Havre de Grace, David Craig, during a forum on horse racing woes in Upper Marlboro. (Matt Houston -- AP)

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If the state faces a budget crisis, Miller said, "it's going to fall squarely on the Democrats for not moving forward on slots -- and rightfully so."

Miller also complimented Ehrlich for his rousing pro-slots speech at an Upper Marlboro forum, organized by the Maryland Horse Industry Board, that immediately preceded their joint appearance. "I agree with every single word the governor said today," Miller said.

Party regulars said Miller's remarks provided the strongest evidence to date that a split over slots is starting to do serious damage to Maryland Democrats. Ehrlich seemed to revel in the moment.

After Miller stressed a second time that Democrats will be blamed if revenue does not meet the state's needs, Ehrlich smiled at Miller and said, "So who did you vote for for governor, really?"

Democratic leaders were not amused by the Senate president's comments. The party's state chairman, Isiah Leggett, said he was "disappointed that Senator Miller would take that position."

"I believe if there's any fault for the state's budget problems, they will rest squarely with the governor," Leggett said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he was baffled by the remarks. Busch led two years of opposition to slots in Annapolis but more recently has signaled an interest in compromise. He said it is up to the governor, as well as Democrats, to get slots passed.

"And if there are structural problems with the budget," Busch said, "I don't think anybody believes there's only one way to solve them. I'm certain there aren't many people in Maryland who want us to solve it with an unstable revenue source like slots."

Miller was unapologetic, saying he feels terribly for those in the state's horse industry who counted on the proceeds from slot machines to help protect their farms and businesses from competition in neighboring states.

"For these people to compete, we needed slots two years ago," Miller said. "And we desperately needed them a year ago. And now, terrible consequences will flow, and the Democrats will get the blame."

Miller's sentiments certainly resonated with many of the 250 horse industry insiders who attended yesterday's forum. Many said they believe that Democrats in Annapolis have failed to recognize the value of the state's 20,000 horse farms and the risk that the farms will fold.

Henry Holloway, a large Maryland feed supplier, said he believes that there is a misperception that all horse breeders are wealthy and therefore do not deserve help from the state. William K. Boniface, a breeder and trainer based in Harford County, said that since Pennsylvania approved slot machines for its race tracks this summer, the industry has faced an especially bleak future in Maryland.

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