House panel gives OK to commission to study slots' effects

Bill seen as latest move to block passage this year of Ehrlich gambling plan

March 08, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

House Speaker Michael E. Busch's effort to stave off slot machines in Maryland moved forward yesterday as a committee approved a bill creating a commission to study the ramifications of expanded gambling.

The unanimous voice vote in the Ways and Means Committee sends the legislation to the House floor, where it could be acted on by delegates next week.

The measure does not preclude subsequent House passage of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legislation placing 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks. But House Democratic leaders are using the bill to send a message that the governor's plan faces trouble in their chamber.

The panel's action occurred as Democrats were circulating an article by Ehrlich in August in which he promised to veto any gambling bill that did not give a right of refusal to the local jurisdictions where slots are proposed to be installed.

The governor's bill does not allow for a local option -- prompting Democrats to accuse him of breaking a campaign promise.

Meanwhile, legislators were complaining that they still don't have the amendments Ehrlich outlined during a Wednesday night news conference on how he intends to revise his slots bill.

"We don't vote on press releases," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. "We need amendments. We need a bill to deal with."

The Ways and Means Committee's action puts the House Democratic leadership on a collision course with Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- both of whom are pushing hard for slots this year.

The bill would create a 16-member commission made up of eight senators and eight delegates to study the issues surrounding slots between June 1 and Dec. 31 -- after which the panel would report back to the General Assembly.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve said he expects the House to take no further action on slots until it receives a bill from the Senate, where expanded gambling has stronger support.

Support for passage of a slots bill this year is fading fast in the House and the Senate, Barve said. "It's hanging on by a thread, but that thread is Mike Miller," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Lobbyists working to defeat the administration's bill said the governor's latest revision -- in which he almost doubled the share of slots proceeds going to the racetracks and cut the share for education -- has drained any enthusiasm for the legislation.

"Voting for delay is the absolutely safe vote," said Joseph A. Schwartz III, who represents the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association. "Even if you're for slots, people know it's so absolutely screwed up, you can't do it this year.

Ehrlich denied yesterday that he was losing momentum on the slots issue, adding that he believes a majority of both houses will support him. "We're getting pretty close to yes on slots. You guys feel it," he said.

Meanwhile, the governor's aides were defending his decision not to allow for a local "opt-out" on slots. During his campaign in the summer, Ehrlich said: "I will insist that any slot machine program include a mechanism allowing local county governments to reject slot machines in their counties if they wish."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said he couldn't think of any proposal that doesn't change in consultation with legislators.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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