The influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee introduced legislation yesterday under which Maryland voters would decide next year whether to amend the state's Constitution to permit video slot machines at racetracks and, possibly, resorts.
Del. Howard P. Rawlings said his proposal, which faces uncertain prospects in the General Assembly, would raise as much as $400 million a year for public schools and libraries, while potentially shielding Marylanders from tax increases if the economy turns sour.
The State Lottery Commission would select up to four locations for the machines; two would be racetracks, while the others would be "tourist destinations" that could include hotels, golf resorts or other horse tracks.
While the bill says only that the sites would be "locations in four different regions of the state," supporters said "family areas" such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Ocean City would not be in the mix. But opponents of the legislation noted that site selection would be beyond the Assembly's control.
"Nobody can guarantee where it's going," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and House minority whip. "The rich guys would be fighting over who gets the slot machines at their location, and Pete Rawlings and Mayor [Martin] O'Malley are not going to be able to guarantee the outcome of that."
Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, introduced similar legislation in 1998 that died in committee. He said the time is right this year because lawmakers have grown tired of seeing state residents head off to gamble at slot machines in Delaware and West Virginia. Maryland racetracks have argued for years that they need the revenue generated by slots to compete with tracks in surrounding states.
Because the legislation would lead to a referendum, it could not be vetoed by the governor. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been an outspoken opponent of further gambling in Maryland. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a likely candidate to succeed Glendening after the 2002 election, opposes slots but has refused to preclude their legalization. Glendening's spokesman, Michael Morrill, said yesterday that the governor's opposition to slot machines has not changed. Morrill said it was too early to say whether Glendening would lobby against the bill.
Neither Rawlings nor other sponsors - there were 17 in all - would predict the outcome of the debate in the House. The bill would require a "supermajority" of 60 percent of both the House and Senate for passage.
"I don't know," Rawlings said of its chances. "I think our colleagues have to make a decision whether they want to improve the quality of public education in this state by increasing taxes or using a very regulated gaming venue."
Proceeds from the machines would be controlled by the lottery commission. At least half the revenue would go into a special fund for public schools and libraries.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has given backers reason for optimism by endorsing Rawlings' approach. "I think a constitutional amendment is easy to support, because I'm not making the decision - the people are," Taylor said recently. Taylor and other Western Maryland lawmakers have long considered slots a possible tool to boost tourism in their districts.
But some leading House Democrats are not on board. "In an economy where you're running a surplus, I don't think you need to throw slots and gambling into the equation," said Economic Matters Chairman Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.
Some lawmakers say the prospects for such a bill were given a boost when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller began the 90-day legislative session by establishing a committee to examine gambling issues.
"When you have the president of the Senate setting up a committee to look into this, that's a pretext," said Flanagan, who opposes the bill. "I think this is the year they're going to try to get it done."
Flanagan said slots would bring "a huge influx of gambling contributions to politicians. It's going to get the gambling industry in bed with the politicians, and that's not good for anybody who supports campaign reform."
But Miller said the committee he created was designed merely to study the issue. "As far as slots now or in the immediate future, I anticipate little or any sentiment" for approval, he said. "When I set up this committee, I did so because if and when there is an economic downturn, and if there is no stomach for raising taxes, then legislators - especially weak-kneed ones - are going to look at West Virginia and Delaware for answers."
A recent statewide poll for The Sun found that Maryland voters surveyed favor legalizing slot machines at horse tracks, 45 percent to 39 percent. Those numbers represent a significant change from several years ago, when a poll found that state residents opposed slots, 48 percent to 39 percent.
After his amendment was defeated in 1998, Rawlings sought - and failed - in 1999 and 2000 to pass a bill designed to achieve the same goals without altering the state Constitution.
If this year's bill is approved, Rawlings said the Assembly would weigh a second piece of legislation establishing procedures for dealing with the machines. He said the bill would likely contain a provision requiring local citizen approval before slots can begin operations.
Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.