Key pro-gambling lawmakers said yesterday that they doubted Maryland could legalize slot machines quickly enough to help erase the $1.3 billion gap in next year's state budget, raising the odds of deep program cuts or tax increases.
Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said that if slots win approval in the General Assembly, it likely will take more than a year for gambling revenue to reach the state's bank accounts.
As a result, he said, his committee is beginning to consider other ways to close next year's budget deficit -- possibly casting aside a key component of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to restore the state's financial health.
"It's going to be difficult for us, if not impossible," to raise enough money from gambling to balance next year's budget, Currie said. "We are moving in the direction that in all likelihood the money won't be there."
Currie's comments were echoed by Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), another slots supporter and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. At a briefing for lawmakers yesterday, Rawlings said he also was dubious that Maryland could cash in on slots in time to fix the budget problems.
He cited testimony at the briefing that noted it took about 18 months for slot machines to become operational in Delaware after lawmakers there legalized that form of gambling in 1994.
"Many of us don't believe we can achieve this," Rawlings said of the Republican governor's proposal to raise nearly $400 million in gambling revenue next year. He said it was "unusually ambitious" to assume that Maryland could get enough slot machines up and running in time.
Ehrlich's budget plan for next year assumes that Maryland will receive $395 million from gambling. Private slot operators would pay the bulk of that figure -- $350 million -- in one-time licensing fees. But the remainder would come from a gambling tax and assumes that slots would be operational before June 2004.
Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, said the governor was confident that his slots plan would work in time to balance next year's budget, despite the skepticism of lawmakers who otherwise favor legalized gambling.
"We believe we can get it done," she said. "The alternatives are unthinkable."
Ehrlich is scheduled to release the specifics of his slots plan today. The governor has said he wants to restrict slots to four horse racing tracks, but his bill will spell out key details, such as how many machines would be allowed at each site and who would be entitled to a slice of the profits.
In the meantime, gambling opponents are intensifying their efforts to defeat the proposal.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) is scheduled to meet with about a dozen African American ministers today to urge them to join his campaign against slots. The meeting was arranged by Progressive Maryland, a liberal advocacy group.
Busch's allies in the House also are circulating a draft bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on efforts to legalize slots, in an attempt to derail Ehrlich's gambling proposal at least temporarily. Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said he has enlisted 71 Democratic co-sponsors -- a majority of the 141-member House.
"It's a big breakthrough," said Franchot, who plans to introduce the bill today. "It's a fire wall against any precipitous action on slots."
Slots could bring a financial bonanza to Maryland, although no one has been able to predict exactly how much money the state would receive.
At the briefing for lawmakers yesterday, the General Assembly's fiscal experts estimated that slots could eventually generate $800 million to $1.8 billion a year, depending on how many machines were permitted and how often they were used.
The room was packed with lobbyists and representatives of special-interest groups: racetrack owners, horse breeders and anti-tax groups, as well as gambling opponents.
According to one model presented to lawmakers, 10,000 slot machines would produce $870 million to $1.05 billion a year in gross revenue -- before expenses and before the proceeds were divided among the state, track owners and other potential beneficiaries.
In recent weeks, Ehrlich and his staff have suggested legalizing 10,000 to 16,000 slots, although the governor is expected to settle on a final number when he introduces his bill today.
Racetrack owners this week have given lawmakers their own estimates on how much money slots could bring. Their estimates have generally been rosier.
Magna Entertainment Corp., a Canadian racing conglomerate that recently bought a controlling interest in the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks, commissioned a private study that predicts 10,500 slot machines at the state's three biggest tracks would generate $1.4 billion a year in revenue.
The Magna study also seeks to ease lawmakers' worries that it would take months or years for slots to become operational.
It predicts that the three major tracks -- Pimlico, in Baltimore; Laurel Park, in Anne Arundel County; and Rosecroft Raceway, in Oxon Hill -- could install 2,000 slots in temporary quarters at each site by next spring. The makeshift operations could raise $157 million in gross revenue from April to June 2004, the last three months of the state's coming fiscal year.
William Rickman Jr., a Potomac businessman who is planning to build a racetrack near Cumberland and owns the Ocean Downs harness track on the Eastern Shore, said slots could "easily" become operational at tracks in six to nine months. "The infrastructure at the racetracks is conducive to doing this quickly," he said.