About 10,000 of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s best friends received an unusual e-mail this week, imploring them to help his effort to legalize slot machines in Maryland or else risk "a fresh round of tax increases."
With the General Assembly set to begin debating Ehrlich's gambling proposal Tuesday, the governor is oiling up the machinery from his political campaign in an attempt to put populist pressure on legislators who are leery of slots. The e-mail warns, "This bill must pass, because the alternatives are simply unacceptable to taxpayers like you."
Ehrlich (R) is counting on slots to help close a $1.3 billion budget shortfall next year and eventually pump about $800 million annually into the state treasury. If the gambling measure fails, he says, lawmakers will be forced to adopt "huge tax increases or devastating budget cuts."
Slots foes said that Ehrlich is distorting the debate and that the e-mail is a sign that the governor is becoming nervous about the prospect for slots -- once considered a sure bet.
"It's a standard political misdirection play by the governor to scare people by saying all these terrible things are going to happen if you don't pass slots," said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the House majority leader. "When, in fact, those things are not going to happen."
The e-mail was sent late Thursday to a database of Ehrlich supporters maintained by his campaign committee. The unsigned message, titled an "Ehrlich/Steele Legislative Alert," was written by Ehrlich speechwriter Richard J. Cross III on behalf of the Ehrlich for Maryland Committee, aides said.
The dispatch urged recipients to contact their state delegates and senators and lobby them to support Ehrlich's slots bill, which would authorize 10,500 of the gambling machines at four horse racing tracks.
"It's an effort to reemphasize that this bill is a priority of Governor Ehrlich," said press secretary Shareese DeLeaver, "and to rally our grass roots."
Ehrlich's missive points out that some anti-slots lawmakers have suggested a variety of tax increases to wipe out the deficit, including a 5 percent income tax surcharge on "wealthy Maryland families," a rise in the state sales tax and higher gasoline taxes.
While such taxes have been discussed, Barve said they are not being seriously considered by the House leadership, which prefers to balance the budget by raising corporate taxes.
Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a nonprofit lobbying group funded by labor and religious interests, said Ehrlich was "running scared" because his slots bill has drawn fire since it was introduced three weeks ago.
"The word in Annapolis we hear every day is that his proposal doesn't make any sense and it's in trouble," Hucker said. "He's certainly acting like it's in trouble."
As currently written, Ehrlich's bill would dedicate 64 percent of the revenue from slots to a public education trust fund. About 25 percent would go to racetrack owners, 8 percent to horse breeders and racing purses, and 3 percent to local governments.
But those numbers are likely to change even before the legislative hearings begin. Ehrlich hired a consultant this week for $100,000 to help him rewrite the bill after racetrack owners and local governments complained that their share of the anticipated jackpot from slots was far too low.
Staff writer Jo Becker contributed to this report.