Slot Debate Focus of Ehrlich's First Year; He Did Cut Spending, Avoid Tax Increases

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Byline: Robert Redding Jr., THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has fulfilled promises to reduce government and avoid tax increases, but his first year also has been defined by the defeat of his centerpiece legislation to bring slot-machine gambling to the state.

"The key to Ehrlich's popularity in his first year is that Bob Ehrlich has stood for Maryland taxpayers against a continuing Democratic chorus of 'we need tax increases,'" Republican strategist Kevin Igoe said.

Mr. Ehrlich's election victory in November gave Republicans their first Maryland governorship in more than 30 years, but also brought the expected struggle with the Democratic majority in the General Assembly and the burden of cutting a $1 billion budget shortfall inherited from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch led Democratic opposition, which called for tax increases to reduce the shortfall and defeated the slots legislation in the Ways and Means Committee.

Mr. Busch rejected Mr. Ehrlich's proposal, which projected a $700 million profit in the first year to improve public education by putting slots at four racetracks, because he thought the track owners would make too much money.

Mr. Busch appeared ready to compromise over the summer, saying he would support the plan if the state ran the gambling emporiums or if the machines were put at more than the few tracks designated by the governor. However, the House speaker reversed his stance because he again thought racetrack owners would make too much money on the deal.

Still, Mr. Ehrlich remains optimistic and says he want to work with Mr. Busch.

"Hopefully, this will be the year," Mr. Ehrlich said earlier this month. "There is a lot of money here. People are just tired. It's a silly thing. I believe we can get a program passed."

Though the governor remains convinced that slots can pay for his education-reform policy, he also appears ready for a compromise on where to put slots.

"Clearly, my predisposition is tracks," Mr. Ehrlich said. "If an agreement can be ultimately reached, it will be a combination" of racetracks and other locations.

Mr. Ehrlich already has support from the 3,000-member Maryland Restaurant Association and 300-member Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association.

"I think pressure is going to keep building on liberals to support slots," Mr. Igoe said. "The only alternative is more budget cuts to the programs they like."

Mr. Ehrlich met his promise to cut spending, including the unpopular decision to slash more than $50 million from the Maryland Higher Education System - $40 million from the University of Maryland system, $9.7 million from community colleges and $3.6 million from college programs.

The cuts are expected to result in major tuition increases. For example, in-state tuition at the University of Maryland's flagship College Park campus will increase by $850 to $6,759 a year.

Mr. Ehrlich also eliminated 3,200 unfilled positions since taking office in January. …