03/31/2004 12:00AM

Md. tracks may lose slots

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Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland and the state's budget secretary, James C. DiPaula Jr., told the state House Ways and Means committee Tuesday that they were willing to consider state ownership of slot-machine parlors, a plan that would eliminate the state's racetracks from sharing in slots revenue.

Ehrlich repeatedly told the committee that he would bend on anything but significant tax increases, promising deep cuts in everything but public schools if the House rejects expanded gambling.

"Taxes are a non-starter," the governor told reporters. "The way to kill the slots bill again is to attach it to taxes." The Ways and Means committee voted down a slots proposal last year.

The administration's unwillingness to bend on taxes could doom Ehrlich's slots plan, warned Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the committee.

"You know the position of the House," Hixson told administration officials at the end of the hearing. "We see slots and revenues as a cooperative situation."

Tuesday's hearing was the governor's last chance at this legislative session to make a formal pitch to the committee for his plan to permit up to 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and three non-track locations.