Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) claimed a mandate yesterday for legalizing slot machine gambling in the wake of his November election and outlined a plan to pressure local governments to help him pass the proposal through a General Assembly controlled by Democrats.
Ehrlich said he has been meeting with county executives across the state, telling them that if his proposal to put slots at four of the state's racetracks doesn't pass, he may be forced to cut aid to local governments as he struggles to close next year's historic $1.2 billion budget deficit.
During a luncheon at The Washington Post, Ehrlich said that his budget is not "overly dependent" on passing slots during the session that begins next week and that he could deliver promised increases in aid to public schools without the gambling revenue: "We'll live," he said.
But Ehrlich said he has been blunt in talking to county executives about the possible fallout: If he is to keep his campaign promise protecting cities and counties from cuts in other areas, local leaders need to "deliver a few votes" in their legislative delegations.
"We've been very clear," Ehrlich said.
While education aid makes up most of the money that is distributed, cities and counties also depend on state funding for public health programs, law enforcement, community colleges, transportation projects and other efforts.
Slots and the state's fiscal crisis promise to dominate the General Assembly session that opens Wednesday. The test will be for Ehrlich to translate his victory as the first GOP governor in three decades in heavily Democratic Maryland into the clout he needs to pass his agenda through a legislature controlled by the opposing party.
Ehrlich's slots plan faces the stiffest opposition in the House of Delegates, where his old friend, the incoming speaker, Del. Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), is adamantly opposed. Busch has been making his own rounds, asking Democratic lawmakers to hold off support for slots unless Ehrlich manages to get all 43 GOP delegates to sign onto the plan. He has stacked the committee that will cast the first vote on slots with Republicans who campaigned against them.
Ehrlich said he plans to place particular pressure on local officials in areas where he won by a large margin. The campaign, he said, was a "referendum on slots. . . . Clearly the people of Maryland have spoken on the issue."
Ehrlich said he could not understand Busch's insistence that there be unanimity among Republicans. "There's a clear majority in both parties," Ehrlich said, noting that many Democratic leaders support slots. Among them is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D), with whom Ehrlich said he is working well.
Busch said Ehrlich is making "a huge assumption" in believing that the November election was a referendum on slots.
"If that were the case, why isn't everyone in his party running to jump on board to support this? Where are all 43 of his guys?" Busch asked. "Why is it local governments' fault that he can't live up to his campaign promises?"
But David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, called Ehrlich's hardball strategy smart.
"He's drawing a nexus between slots and the services about which citizens care the most -- public safety and local health -- things that are on the forefront of citizens concerns now with homeland security," Bliden said. "It's going to come down to individual decision from county to county -- sentiment varies in different areas of the state."
Ehrlich's argument resonates with Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D). Ehrlich easily carried her jurisdiction, and though the county's delegation is headed by Busch and dominated by slots opponents, she worries about her own budget woes. Like the state, counties already have been forced to cut programs because of declining tax revenue and can't afford a big hit from the state. Owens is particularly worried about losing a $26 million local share of state gas tax revenues.
"I definitely feel the pressure," Owens said. Despite her belief that the slots issue ought to be decided by referendum, she plans to lobby lawmakers. "I'm going to tell them that something has to give because there is isn't enough money. I'm going to try to lay that out."
In Montgomery County, where Ehrlich lost, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said he has no intention of lobbying for slots. Ehrlich promised during the campaign not to cut local aid, Duncan said, "and we expect him to keep his word."
Duncan, who is widely viewed as a potential challenger to Ehrlich in 2006, said: "He's the governor. It's his budget and his program, and he needs to get it through."
Ehrlich hopes to raise $400 million next year by selling slots licenses, and believes that the machines could eventually net the state an annual $800 million.
Yesterday, he reiterated his opposition to raising the sales or income tax to close Maryland's budget shortfall and said a plan to expand the sales tax base is politically impractical in the short-term.
Democrats are pushing to close tax loopholes given to various types of businesses as a way to avoid spending cuts.
Besides slots, Ehrlich also sketched out some details of his plan to close next year's shortfall. He said he can borrow money from a transportation fund used to pay for new roads without significantly delaying projects. He also has plans to plug holes with money designated for Maryland's public colleges and universities.
He said he has not made a decision about whether to include an increase in the gas tax but said that the idea is still very much on the table. While a gas tax increase could help pay for such projects as the proposed intercounty connector between Interstates 270 and 95, Ehrlich said the state must eventually find another stable revenue source to deliver major projects.