Senate narrowly OKs slots

Bill to expand gambling at 4 racetracks passes by a margin of 25-21

Ehrlich `very pleased' by result

He gives city's Gladden pledge to fund needed road improvements

March 23, 2003|By Michael Dresser and Stephanie Desmon | Michael Dresser and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate handed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. the most important legislative victory of his young administration yesterday by approving a bill allowing 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

Senators voted 25-21 to pass the measure and send it to the House of Delegates, where Speaker Michael E. Busch says he will prevent its consideration.

After the vote, Ehrlich, flanked by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, told reporters they were "very pleased" by the Senate action.

"To make a very appropriate analogy, we've reached the Sweet 16," Ehrlich said, in a reference to the NCAA basketball tournament. "We still have a ways to go to win the national championship."

Senate passage of the legislation occurred after Ehrlich gave Mayor Martin O'Malley and the leaders of other jurisdictions that are home to Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks a written promise that the state would pay all "reasonable" costs of mitigating the traffic impact of building giant gambling halls.

That assurance was stripped from the bill Friday - prompting O'Malley to announce his opposition. Yesterday, the mayor said he still wants the guarantee written into any slots legislation the General Assembly might pass.

The landmark legislation would bring legal commercial slot machines back to Maryland 40 years after the Assembly voted to ban them. Currently, the only legal slot machines in Maryland are those in some fraternal and veterans' organization meeting halls on the Eastern Shore.

The votes were cast under the shadow of a mounting budget shortfall - exacerbated by the $1.3 billion commitment the state made last year to fully fund the education aid formula recommended by the Thornton Commission.

Supporters of the bill invoked the needs of children frequently during the hourlong debate, noting that 46 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion in slots proceeds would go to schools.

"If we don't pass this bill, we're not going to have Thornton," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., explaining why he broke a campaign promise to oppose expanded gambling. The Anne Arundel County Democrat said it was the hardest vote of his political career.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky denounced the measure as bad public policy, saying that the biggest beneficiaries of the slots plan will be racetrack owners, due to receive 39 percent of the proceeds. The Prince George's County Democrat recalled that six years ago, Pimlico and Laurel chief executive Joseph A. De Francis was convicted of violating state election law.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we're making a pact with the devil, and I don't mean Lucifer," Pinsky said.

The vote was a tough choice for many Republican senators - some of whom had opposed expanding gambling when Democrats held the governor's office.

"I hate slot machines. I hate gambling," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who spoke of her brother's compulsive gambling problem, which she said destroyed his family. But the Harford County lawmaker said she saw no other way out of the state's budget problems.

"It might not be the right thing to do in my heart, but it's the right thing to do for my state," she said.

Jacobs was one of 10 Republican senators to vote for the bill. Three voted against, and Harford County Sen. J. Robert Hooper left the floor and did not vote. Democrats opposed the bill, 18-15.

Busch said the narrow margin in the Senate means "there's still a lot of unanswered questions about the long-term issues dealing with slot machines." The House has passed a bill setting up a commission to study the issue and report back next year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he had several "yes" votes in reserve. "There's at least five more senators that would have liked to have voted for the bill," he said.

Asked how slots proponents will be able to get the bill through the House, where Busch has said he would not bring it up for a vote, Miller said: "That's the governor's job."

Miller praised Ehrlich's lobbying efforts for the bill, saying several Republican senators were swayed by the governor's "hard work and sincerity."

Ehrlich, in turn, thanked the Senate president for being "a terrific partner." Continuing his basketball analogy, he said he would lobby "man to man" to win House passage of the bill.

Pledge to Gladden

The governor had to work hard yesterday morning to hold the vote of Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico.

Gladden said she went to Ehrlich after the Senate removed a mandate Friday that the state pay for improvements needed to handle traffic to the slots halls.

The senator said she accepted the governor's written pledge to bear those costs with misgivings. "I reminded the governor that he has a history of writing bad checks," she said, a reference to past promises.

The senator also said she was "very agitated" with O'Malley, who was quoted in yesterday's Sun as saying he was "disappointed" that city senators did not resist the amendment.

Lack of leadership

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