Skeptical Ehrlich Reopens Slot Machine Debate

By Matthew Mosk and John Wagner
Friday, January 20, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he plans to wade back into the contentious debate over slot machine gambling, submitting a bill that is similar to those he's offered in past years.

Ehrlich (R) has been clear that he does not have high expectations for a proposal that -- despite sitting at the top of his agenda for the past three years -- he has never been able to navigate through the legislature.

Yesterday, his chief lobbyist was asked about the odds of a slots bill passing in an election year.

"Hope springs eternal," Alan Friedman replied. "We need a new revenue source. We need to not let this money keep driving out of Maryland."

The measure, which looks similar to one that passed the Senate last year, bulks up the amount of gambling revenue that would be dedicated to school construction. Last year, that amount was $150 million; this year, it's $400 million.

While Senate support remains likely, Friedman said the fate of the proposal will rest in the hands of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). The House narrowly passed a slots bill last year, but Senate leaders did not like the details of that bill, and Busch closed the door on negotiating a compromise.

This year, Busch has said he expects the rosy economy to sap energy from any slots push. With a billion-dollar surplus, he has said, there is ample room to finance the state's needs without creating a new revenue source.

During his briefing on the budget, Ehrlich acknowledged that sentiment, saying the "fiscal realities" of the previous years made slots "a more attractive option. No doubt about it."

Paroled Sex Offenders

A Senate committee held the first round of hearings yesterday on bills directed at clamping down on paroled sex offenders.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) testified before the Judicial Proceedings Committee on a proposal to use Global Positioning System technology to track sex offenders and to step up the requirements for notifying residents, schools and police when a paroled offender moves into a neighborhood.

A similar bill is being championed by the governor, who wants child sex offenders to be supervised for life upon parole and forbidden from living near a school or day-care facility.

Lawmakers have said they expect to take the best elements of all the bills they receive and produce a single, comprehensive measure. Curran told the panel yesterday that he was comfortable with that plan. "Our research of other states shows Maryland could be more aggressive than we are now," he said.

More Vetoes Reversed

Maryland lawmakers approved five bills yesterday that had been vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), including several addressing the state's troubled juvenile services system.

One of those measures requires state officials to appear in court every 25 days to explain cases in which juveniles had been found delinquent but not yet assigned services. Critics said the current system, in which officials may file a written explanation, leaves too many vulnerable youths in the lurch. Those who opposed the bill argued that it would clog the courts.

Another measure moves the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor from the governor's office to the attorney general's office, a move designed to give the agency more independence.

The Senate joined the House in resurrecting measures that seek to expand diversion programs for juveniles and give Baltimore officials broader access to youths' records.

The House joined the Senate, meanwhile, in overriding Ehrlich's veto of a bill changing the membership of the Maryland Commission for Women.

The latest string of veto override votes led to grumbling among Republican leaders in the Senate, who said that veto overrides were relatively rare under Democratic governors and that Ehrlich deserves some deference.

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