Assembly OKs third track, racing subsidy

House of Delegates approves increase on cigarette tax Session down to final day Bills for scholarships, bargaining rights are expected to pass

April 12, 1999|By GADY A. EPSTEIN AND THOMAS W. WALDRON | GADY A. EPSTEIN AND THOMAS W. WALDRON,SUN STAFF

Nearing the end of its annual 90-day session, the General Assembly gave final approval last night to $10 million in subsidies for the racing industry and a plan to allow a third thoroughbred racing track in Maryland.

The House of Delegates also signed off on a 30 cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase, which will generate about $77 million a year in state revenue. It is the first major tax boost since the recession year of 1992, when the state increased taxes on tobacco, gasoline and income.

Both measures go to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for his promised signature.

With the Assembly adjourning at midnight tonight, the House convened a rare Sunday-evening session to vote on dozens of bills that were disgorged from the Senate after a three-day filibuster against the tobacco tax increase collapsed the night before.

Even after last night's flurry of activity, several key issues, including some of Glendening's top legislative priorities, remain unresolved going into the session's final day.

The governor's bills to create an ambitious college scholarship program and to guarantee collective bargaining rights for state employees are expected to pass today, but his anti-discrimination legislation for gays appears headed for defeat.

Glendening aides said they were confident the governor would emerge tonight with a solid list of legislative achievements.

"The governor as of Monday will have the majority of his package through," said Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman.

In his most difficult fight, the governor will continue to try today to nudge a Senate committee to send his gay-rights bill to the Senate floor.

Even if the Judicial Proceedings Committee approves the bill today, it faces long odds of navigating the rest of the Assembly to become law in close to its original form.

Purse subsidy continued

With no debate, and on a vote of 113 to 21, the House approved legislation last night continuing a $10 million subsidy for purses for the racing industry, which Glendening backed in exchange for promises of improvements at the state's two thoroughbred tracks.

Under the bill, the state would not give the purse subsidy unless the track improvement plans were approved by the governor and legislative leaders.

The racing industry had pushed lawmakers to continue the state funding for purses to help Maryland compete with growing purses in Delaware. That state's purses receive a subsidy from legalized slot machines, which Glendening opposes bringing to Maryland.

The bill also allows a license to be issued for a thoroughbred racing track in Allegany County, which may be built by the owner of a Delaware race track.

William M. Rickman, a Montgomery County builder and president of Delaware Park racetrack, has announced plans to build a track, possibly near Cumberland.

He said he envisions a small track -- with a capacity of no more than 5,000 patrons -- that would offer harness and thoroughbred racing on concentric ovals.

Live racing would be conducted in short, annual meets, probably in the summer. The rest of the year, the operation would survive by taking bets on televised, or "simulcast," races at other tracks around the country.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for one of the most distressed regions in the state, the two mountain counties, to continue to revitalize its economy through recreation and sports and tourism that we've been building on," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat who represents the area being considered by Rickman.

"And I think it's a wonderful opportunity to help to further a struggling Maryland industry, the racing industry," Taylor said.

Scaled-back victory

Glendening also claimed an important, albeit scaled-back, final victory last night when the House approved the cigarette tax increase on a vote of 82 to 54.

Approval, which came after only a few minutes of discussion, seemed anti-climactic after the convulsive tax debate in the Senate over much of the previous three days.

The tobacco tax increase -- which will push the state tax on a pack of cigarettes to 66 cents, the 11th highest in the nation -- falls far short of the $1-a-pack boost Glendening argued was necessary to significantly reduce youth smoking.

The House had earlier approved the Democratic governor's full dollarr-a-pack increase, but under pressure from conservative Democrats and Republicans, the Senate knocked that down significantly.

Some pro-tax delegates said they had misgivings about passing the smaller amount but conceded that with the session ending today, they had no choice but to accept the smaller Senate increase.

"This is very difficult for some of us who voted for a dollar tobacco tax," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat. "The tax will give Maryland one of the highest cigarette taxes in the country. That's progress. Not great progress, but it's progress."

Some legislators opposed any tobacco tax increase, arguing the governor has pushed for it as a way to increase revenue, not as a deterrent to youth smoking.

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