Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich speaks at pro-slots rally Tuesday.

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich speaks at pro-slots rally Tuesday.

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club

Maryland Horse Industry Rallies For Slots

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich made a personal appeal to members of a House committee Tuesday for approval of his slot machine bill, saying revenues from gambling are necessary to avoid deep cuts in state aid for health care and local governments.

He said slot machines also are needed to protect the state's horse racing industry from competition with adjoining states that al-ready allow slots at tracks.

Ehrlich adopted a conciliatory tone during his 40 minutes before the Ways and Means Committee, promising to work with committee members to craft a bill acceptable to the majority of the House of Delegates.

"We have tried to be flexible. We continue to be flexible," Ehrlich said.

He told committee members that future spending cuts, money from gambling and "whatever revenues we agree on" will ensure that the state keeps its commitment to the $1.3 billion Thornton school aid plan without slashing other programs.

Asked what revenues he would accept as part of his plan to balance future budgets, Ehrlich declined to provide specifics except to note that he sponsored a bill that would make it harder for corporations to shield some of the money they earn in Maryland from state income taxes.

The governor's appearance before the committee came with just 13 days left in the 2004 legislative session. The Senate approved a slot machine bill earlier this session, as it did last year, only to see the bill die in the Ways and Means Committee.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, was primarily responsible for killing the bill a year ago. This year, Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, have been pressuring Busch to bring the bill up for a vote in the committee.

Busch said before the hearing that the bill will be treated like any other bill and will get a vote, but he would not say when.

Before the hearing, Ehrlich spoke at a rally attended by representatives of the horse racing industry, who gathered outside the State House to urge the committee to pass the slots bill.

Ehrlich said since Delaware and West Virginia legalized slot machines at racetracks, "we've seen the industry improve and get well. It's time it gets well in Maryland," he said.

Edmond Gaudet, who owns and trains horses at Bowie, said slot machines will help preserve Maryland's racing industry and save the jobs of thousands of people who earn their living from racing.

"We just need this kind of money," he said.

At the committee meeting, Ehrlich said that even if the slot machine bill fails, he will continue to provide money to fully fund the Thornton school aid plan.

"It's other programs that will suffer," he said.

After the governor told committee members that a majority of Marylanders support his slots bill, he was asked by Delegate Bennett Bozman, D-Worcester, whether he would be willing to put the slots bill on referendum and let voters decide at the next election.

"We get paid our salaries to make tough decisions," Ehrlich said. "I feel, quite frankly, it's passing the ball."

Ehrlich's bill, as approved by the Senate, would authorize up to 15,500 slot machines at three race tracks and three off-track locations. The administration estimates it would produce more than $800 million annually in new revenues once all the machines are in place.

Busch and Delegate Shelia Hixson, D-Montgomery, chairwoman of the committee, have said major changes will be required before a slots bill can pass the House.

Busch favors state ownership of slots facilities, while private companies would own and operate slots emporiums under Ehrlich's bill. Busch also questions the wisdom of putting slots at racetracks, but Ehrlich and Miller believe tracks must get part of the revenue to be able against Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the legislature is considering a slot machine bill.