Slots foes expect fight, but not win

Senate opponents likely to offer bill amendments

`close vote' predicted

March 21, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Senate opponents of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s bill to allow slots at Maryland racetracks girded for a floor fight today while conceding their chances are dismal in the face of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's determined support.

The legislation was the subject of a preliminary skirmish yesterday when it made its first appearance before the full Senate. Critics peppered the floor leader, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, with barbed questions before action on the bill was postponed for a day to let senators draft amendments.

Opponents are expected to attack the bill today with a series of amendments. The foes said they expect to fight the good fight - but not to win.

"This bill will go through the Senate like Sherman through Atlanta," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a gambling opponent. The Charles County Democrat said opponents aren't even talking about trying a filibuster, knowing that they can't count on the support of Republican senators - who in the past have opposed efforts to cut off debate.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, another slots opponent, said the debate that starts today - and that could end as soon as tomorrow - will be "a tough battle."

"We have no illusions. The president of the Senate is foursquare behind it," the Prince George's County Democrat said.

Miller said he had yet not counted votes but predicted "a fairly close vote."

"It's like the Ravens' stadium again," he said. "Everybody wants to go there but nobody wants to be for it."

Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, led the senators through the complicated legislation, which was extensively rewritten in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The bill would allow 3,500 machines at each of three Central Maryland racetracks - Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft - and 1,000 at a planned track in Allegany County.

As revised in the Senate, the measure would direct 46 percent of the slots proceeds to education and 39 percent to the racetrack owners. The rest would go to local governments, treatment of compulsive gambling and to measures designed to revive the state's racing industry.

Kasemeyer said Maryland's share would be larger than in other states that have allowed slots at racetracks. "We are confident that this bill is the best legislative product anywhere in the country on this issue."

Kasemeyer had difficulty supplying answers, however, when Pinsky pressed him for details of how profitable the slots plan would be for track owners - who would be awarded the licenses without the need to compete with other gambling companies. "It's impossible to predict their level of profit," Kasemeyer said.

The questions foreshadowed some of the opponents' potential routes of attack on the measure.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley noted that the bill calls for the state to bear the cost of road improvements - an amendment added to allay the concerns of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - as well as a provision calling for a study of transportation improvements needed to keep traffic flowing smoothly to the racetrack casinos.

The Baltimore County Democrat asked for the potential cost of such traffic projects, which the city government has estimated at $65 million for Pimlico alone. Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and another leading supporter of the bill, said he did not know the cost but promised that "it's not a blank check."

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