With an election looming this fall, proponents of legalizing video slot machines in Maryland conceded yesterday that their State House efforts will likely fail in Annapolis this year.
Even a proposal to send the issue of slot machines to the voters in a referendum has failed to develop momentum, as tepid testimony in support of the measure showed yesterday.
"This doesn't appear to be the year, based on the climate in the legislature at this time," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and proponent of casino-style gambling, after a four-hour hearing on the issue.
"It doesn't look like it's going to happen this year," said Del. Salima Siler Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat and another supporter. "We'll just keep hacking away."
Advocates of casino-style gambling have been pushing the matter for several years in the General Assembly, although the matter has yet to come to a recorded vote in a committee or on the floor of the House or Senate.
Supporters knew going into this year's 90-day session they had an uphill road to enactment of a gambling measure that would likely spark controversy on the campaign trail this fall.
Complicating matters was the pledge by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to veto any such bill that reached his desk.
But House leaders devised legislation that, if approved by the General Assembly, would have bypassed the governor and gone straight to the ballot in November in the form of a proposed amendment to the Maryland Constitution.
The measure would allow 11,250 video slot machines to be installed at the state's racetracks and off-track-betting outlets and two other sites.
The legislation was sponsored by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and other House leaders from around the state.
The bill "lets the people decide if we will have video lottery gaming in Maryland," Rawlings said in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee.
He touted the financial benefit slots would bring to state government -- as much as $482 million a year by his estimate.
Casino companies, racing representatives and the head of the Greater Baltimore Committee testified in support of the bill, but each had strong reservations about portions of the bill.
Joseph A. De Francis, the principal owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, said it was a bad idea to put the gambling authorization into the state Constitution because it would take another referendum to modify it.
"It would be inappropriate to codify all of the particulars of this issue in the Constitution," De Francis said.
However, De Francis added that Maryland must move to legalize slots to compete with Delaware and West Virginia, where tracks are generating huge profits with the devices.
"If they were laughing at us in Delaware in 1995, they are literally rolling in the aisles now," he said.
A long list of opponents, including a representative of the governor, spelled out the problems they said slots would certainly spawn.
"The bill will increase crime," said Eleanor M. Carey, Glendening's senior counselor. "It will close businesses and it will ruin lives."
As a proposed constitutional amendment, Rawlings' bill would need a larger than normal three-fifths majority in each house. The House Republican Caucus said last week that 39 of its 41 members would oppose the bill, meaning at least 83 of the House's 100 Democrats would be needed to back it.
Such a super-majority appears to be out-of-reach, Davis said.
"Legislators tend to look at the emotional thrust of an issue in an election year and the opponents have been more emotional," he said.
Pub Date: 2/27/98