Miller says Ocean Downs to be cut from slots bill

Senate budget committee to vote on proposal today

February 24, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said last night that the Ocean Downs harness track will come out of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to legalize slot machines in Maryland.

The announcement came after the governor spent more than an hour meeting with eight senators late last night, arguing - on the eve of a crucial Senate committee vote this afternoon - against allowing expanded gambling near Ocean City.

"I think in light of the governor's proposal and the fact it is an administration bill, and he indicated very strongly he would like to keep his commitments, I think the recommendation of the committee will be for Ocean Downs to come out of the bill," Miller said. "He made his case and I think the committee listened."

The apparent agreement of the leading Democrats on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to take out Ocean Downs removes what could have been a major impediment to Senate passage of the legislation.

The Senate Republican caucus had voted last week to oppose the slots legislation if Ocean Downs remained in the bill. The harness track is in the district of Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a slots opponent who is the Senate minority leader. Many Ocean City business and political leaders have argued against permitting slots so close to the resort, which emphasizes its family image.

Nine of the 14 Republican senators had backed slots last year - when the Senate approved the measure 25-21, only to see it defeated in a House committee. Miller has acknowledged that bipartisan support is crucial to passing a bill this year.

Senate Democrats had included the harness track among the locations eligible for slot machines when they rewrote Ehrlich's proposal last week.

The governor had initially proposed permitting 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks and at two nontrack locations along the Interstate 95 corridor. The committee had proposed keeping the same number of machines, but adding two locations - Ocean Downs and a third nontrack facility.

Senate Democratic leaders complained privately last night that they had received mixed messages from Ehrlich's staff about how vigorously the administration would oppose allowing slots at Ocean Downs.

During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Ehrlich had argued that three things were "deal-breakers" on slots: tying expanded gambling to a tax increase, permitting full casinos and allowing slots at Ocean City. More recently, Ehrlich advisers had indicated that while the governor still opposed the Ocean Downs location, it was no longer a "deal-breaker."

"The governor made a campaign promise," Ehrlich adviser Paul E. Schurick said last night. "He said he opposed slots at Ocean Downs and would fight it."

Senators who supported adding Ocean Downs to the bill said it made economic sense, as Maryland tries to lure business from nearby Delaware's track-based machines.

"I do personally think it's a good idea," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and budget committee vice chairman.

Miller said he expects the budget committee to vote on the slots proposal during a work session scheduled to begin this afternoon.

Ehrlich advisers were cautiously optimistic after last night's meeting, during which senators and the governor also discussed the city schools situation.

"I don't think there have been any decisions made yet," Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said of the slots legislation. "I'll be relieved to see it after the vote has taken place."

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