With Maryland facing a $1.3 billion shortfall next year, the state's financial condition has emerged as a top campaign issue among Howard County candidates for the General Assembly, although most have offered only vague ideas on how to balance the books.

The deficit, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening has attributed to the sluggish economy, could have a significant impact on Howard County, which depends on state aid for a large part of its budget. County Executive James N. Robey already has said that the coming year could be the county's most financially difficult in years.

Howard's most competitive legislative races are in District 13, which covers the southern part of the county and Columbia. Six candidates -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- are vying for the district's three House seats. And Democrat Vernon Gray is facing incumbent Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader for the district's Senate seat.

Schrader favors allowing slots at racetracks but concedes that slots "are not the end-all to be-all for our problems. But right now we're in a situation where we've got to do something," she said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made legalizing slot machines at the state's racetracks a key component of his budget plan. Ehrlich has estimated that slots could generate as much as $380 million for next year's budget, with most of that coming from the sale of licenses to operators.

But Rockville's Maryland Tax Education Foundation recently said that number is far too low and that the state could raise $1.5 billion if the licenses were auctioned to the highest bidder.

Gray also supports slots at the racetracks but said he doesn't think the measure could be approved in time for next year's budget. But he said an increase in the gas tax could provide revenue to pave roads. And a boost in the cigarette tax, which Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend supports, also could ease budget woes, he said.

"But it wouldn't close the gap entirely," he said. "We've got to scrutinize everything. It's all on the table."

Bob Adams, who with Mary Beth Tung and John Stafford is running on the GOP ticket for the District 13 House delegation, blamed the Democrats and the Glendening administration for the deficit.

"They spent every last penny they had and then some," he said. "I'd rather have slots than have to cut education or health care. That's a no-brainer to me."

But Neil Quinter, who is running with Democratic incumbent Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner, said the state's problems are linked to the faltering economy and not overspending.

"Maryland's affected like all other states," he said. "We're not immune from this recession."

Quinter said he is undecided on slots but supports an increase in the state's cigarette tax, already one of the highest in the nation, and said the money should be earmarked for health care.

Turner said that voters should decide in a referendum whether slots should be legalized. He said the state could expand its tax base by beefing up efforts to attract new businesses.

"We've always balanced the budget since the Democrats have been in charge, and we will to continue to do that," he said. "We cut $750 million last year. And we'll look for additional cuts this year."

In the county's other legislative races, Democrats Walter E. Carson and Tony McGuffin are challenging Republican incumbents Gail H. Bates and Robert L. Flanagan for the two House seats in District 9A, which covers western Howard. Sen. Robert H. Kittleman (R) is unopposed in the District 9 senate race.

In the District 12A House race, which includes a slice of northeastern Howard, Democrats Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and incumbent Del. James E. Malone Jr. will face Republicans Joe Hooe and Harry Korrell for the district's two House seats.

In District 12B, Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D) is unopposed for the seat she has held for seven years. Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer is unopposed in District 12, which covers a portion of Howard County.