Voters may get lever on slots Gambling: State legislators are weighing a referendum, with much of the proceeds from slot machines going to schools.

December 07, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Thomas W. Waldron and JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

There could be an added starter on the Maryland General Assembly's agenda when the legislature convenes next month -- slots for tots.

Some members of the Maryland House of Delegates are quietly dusting off a complicated and potentially volatile plan that would put the question of legalizing slot machines at certain locations before voters on the statewide ballot next fall as a constitutional amendment.

Though such a scheme is viewed as a risky, long-shot effort in an election year, the lawmakers are seriously weighing a plan that would propose allowing state-controlled slots at three of Maryland's privately run horse tracks and two other locations -- and earmarking much of the state's share of the take for schools.

"It is fair to say the [legislative] staff is looking at it," said House Majority Leader John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I think there are a number of hurdles that we have to go over before we are there -- if we're going to be there."

State lawmakers have grappled with the thorny issue of bringing some form of legalized gambling to Maryland for more than two years, though it has never come up for a full vote by either the House or the Senate. This year, however, some believe the idea could be made more palatable to the General Assembly -- if the ultimate decision were left to the voters.

But to make it that far, the proposal would have to be approved by a super-majority of the General Assembly -- three-fifths of both the House and the Senate -- a sometimes difficult goal on nonsensitive issues in nonelection years.

As a proposed amendment, however, the question would, under constitutional law, bypass the governor -- in this case, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has vowed to veto any pro-gambling legislation -- and be put directly in the hands of the electorate.

Details are not final, but the constitutional amendment being considered would include a provision to give local voters the final say over whether slots should be allowed at certain locations in their jurisdictions, legislators said.

The amendment would propose state-licensed slot operations at three of the state's four racetracks -- Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County -- lawmakers said.

In addition, the proposal could also specify two "tourist destinations" in the state -- possibly Cambridge, in Dorchester County, and Cumberland, in Allegany County -- where slots would be permitted, legislators said.

One of the questions legislators are wrestling with is how the state should regulate the slots. For example, should they be licensed and operated by an existing arm of state government, such as the State Lottery Agency, or should a Maryland Gaming Commission be created?

Part of the push for legalizing slots has been an effort to prop up the state's racing industry by offsetting the impact of legalized slot machines at Delaware's racetracks and in West Virginia. Legislators are also interested in capturing for the state treasury some of the estimated $1.2 billion a year that Marylanders spend on out-of-state gambling activities.

Lawmakers are hesitant to discuss the matter publicly, and some even play down the possibility of its introduction in the General Assembly when the legislature convenes next month. But there is some indication among House leaders that an announcement of a plan could come this week.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat who threatened to introduce legislation legalizing slots at Maryland's tracks in the legislative session earlier this year and vowed to try again next year, refused to comment on the proposal.

"I think people ought to talk about it when we have something to talk about," said Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I'll be better prepared to respond at a date in the near future."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, confirmed that members of his chamber were looking at the possibility, but declined to discuss the matter further.

"I've been talking about the concept for a year, so I'm obviously not unfamiliar with it," Taylor said. "But I haven't seen a draft; there is nothing for me to comment on."

The speaker has told associates and local officials, such as the board of the Maryland Association of Counties, that he expects some attempt to legalize slots in the assembly's coming session.

According to officials who have spoken with Taylor, he favors amending the constitution because it would take the issue directly to the voters twice -- first on the statewide ballot as a constitutional amendment, and then, if approved, as a local issue where slots would be permitted.

He has also told them that a carefully worded amendment would limit the amount and type of gambling allowed by the state and keep out full-scale casinos.

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