Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday he plans to wade back into the contentious debate over slot machine gambling, submitting a bill that is similar to those he's offered in past years.
Ehrlich has been clear that he has not set high expectations for a proposal that--despite sitting at the top of his agenda for the past three years--he has never been able to navigate through the legislature.
Yesterday, as the governor released his legislative agenda, his chief lobbyist was asked about the odds of a slots bill passing in an election year.
"Hope springs eternal," Alan Friedman replied. "We need a new revenue source. We need to not let this money keep driving out of Maryland."
The measure, which looks very similar to one that passed the Senate last year, differs only slightly in that it bulks up the amount of gambling revenues that would be dedicated to school construction. Last year that amount was $150 million. This year it's $400 million.
While Senate support remains likely, Friedman said the fate of the proposal will rest in the hands of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). The House narrowly passed a slots bill last year, but Senate leaders did not like the details of that bill, and Busch closed the door on negotiating a compromise.
This year, Busch has said he expects the rosy economy to sap energy from any slots push. With a billion-dollar surplus, he has said, there is ample room to finance the state's needs without creating a new revenue source.
During his briefing on the budget, Ehrlich acknowledged that sentiment, saying the "fiscal realities" of the prior years made slots "a more attractive option. No doubt about it."
"But if you listen to my words," he said, "you have heard me make the case for slots outside the fiscal context."
Only time will determine whether that case will be persuasive in the House, especially in an election year, Friedman said.
As for slots opponents, they appear to be feeling confident the governor's bill won't survive. Lobbyist Minor Carter said of the governor, who was captain of the Princeton University football team, "I''d think if you went to Princeton, you'd have more than one play in your playbook."
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