Slots will play into gubernatorial race
Ehrlich launches campaign with dual announcements in Rockville, Arbutus
ANNAPOLIS It didn't take long for one of the most heavily debated issues from the 2006 gubernatorial campaign to become a talking point for the 2010 rematch between Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"Six years to bring gaming [to Maryland], and they still don't know how to set it up," talk radio show host Mickey Cucchiella said Wednesday in Arbutus at the second of two Ehrlich campaign kickoff rallies.
With that opening jab, slot machines once again seem poised to become one of the campaign's major themes.
Ehrlich, who characterized his bid to reclaim the office he lost to O'Malley in 2006 as "history, part two," is expected to use the beleaguered slots program as an example of what he views as the O'Malley administration's mismanagement.
"I think the people are going to say this is the perfect example of why the current administration doesn't deserve another term," said Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship
Ehrlich acknowledged the slots issue would play into his campaign's message to voters, just as it did when he defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) in 2002 and again versus O'Malley in 2006.
"We'll be talking about it, eight years later," he said.
O'Malley will welcome that discussion, said his campaign manager Tom Russell.
"In the campaign, we are very focused on continuing the progress we've made and on moving Maryland forward," he said in an e-mail response. "Slots are certainly a piece of that."
But Ehrlich's allies argue O'Malley's slots program was ill-conceived and has failed to generate revenue for the state at a time when it desperately needed the extra cash.
Sen. David R. Brinkley blamed House Democrats for repeatedly blocking Ehrlich's slots initiative.
"The House, being strictly partisan, chose to deny him that victory, and now we're paying the financial cost for that," he said.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis challenged Brinkley's interpretation.
"The House of Delegates, in fact, passed a slots bill in 2005, and the speaker was also willing to consider, as he did in 2007, putting the slots issue to a referendum, but there was not interest on the part of the former governor," Alexandra M. Hughes said.
During the 2007 special legislative session, lawmakers authorized a bill that gave voters the final say on slots. It passed overwhelmingly the following year, but implementing the 15,000 machines has run into numerous problems.
Only four qualified bids were submitted for the five sites none for a facility at Rocky Gap State Park.
The lone bidder for a Baltimore city slots parlor was rejected for a license after failing to meet numerous deadlines to submit millions of dollars in required fees.
And plans for a 4,750-machine parlor at Arundel Mills mall must survive a November referendum that aims to overturn a local zoning ordinance that would allow its development.
"It was botched all along," said Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market.
But O'Malley backers argue that O'Malley helped to end the years-long stalemate over slots within 10 months of his inauguration, and the sour economy is a major reason why its implementation has gone awry.
"He didn't get stymied by it," said Del. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Dist. 38B) of Ocean City. "He found a solution to it."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, who worked with Ehrlich to try to get a slots bill passed during his term, doesn't think either man can claim a huge advantage on slots.
"Both governors can declare themselves leaders in trying to move the state forward on slots," he said.
Still, Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Dist. 21) of Beltsville expects Ehrlich to harp on slots.
"I'm sure there's going to be darts thrown," she said. "Anything they can attack the governor on, they will, whether they're right or wrong."
However, Cucchiella's comment was the only reference to slots on Wednesday, as Ehrlich launched his campaign. Instead, he focused on a theme of finishing what he started in 2003.
Ehrlich offered his commitment to small businesses and pledged to roll back a 20 percent sales tax increase passed during the 2007 special session. He also set a goal of doubling the number of charter schools in Maryland, which currently stands at 42.
Ehrlich took no questions from the media during his morning announcement in Rockville and took just four questions in Arbutus, speaking with reporters for a little more than one minute before getting into his sport utility vehicle.
Staff Writer Douglas Tallman contributed to this report.