State Senate gives approval for 6 slots sites

Amended Ehrlich bill approved on 27-18 vote

Two locations reserved for city

Measure sure to change in House, speaker says

General Assembly

February 28, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

With the city schools' financial crisis adding urgency to the search for more state money for education, the Maryland Senate approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s bill yesterday to allow slot machines at six locations.

The 27-18 vote sends the heavily amended governor's plan to the House of Delegates, where the presiding officer says it is sure to be rewritten again.

The measure got support from three more Democrats than last year's slots bill, which passed 25-21, but one Republican abandoned it.

"We did extremely well today," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the governor's chief slots ally in the legislature. "It's a big win for the Senate, a big win for the governor and, most importantly, a big win for the children of Maryland."

The governor's plan seeks to authorize 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and three non-track sites, with the state's share of the revenues dedicated to future public school funding increases promised in a measure passed two years ago, called the Thornton plan.

Legislative analysts estimate the measure could raise more than $800 million a year for the state treasury when the machines are all operating.

"The Maryland State Senate is the only chamber to have a plan to fund the Thornton plan, and we congratulate them for taking that action," said Ehrlich adviser Paul Schurick. "This was an important step forward, but we've got a very difficult six weeks ahead of us."

Last year, the governor's proposal to allow slot machines only at racetracks was killed in a House committee. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has repeatedly said he does not believe expanded gambling is the best way to pay for education and state government.

Yesterday, Busch said his chamber will not start seriously considering the slots bill until after the Senate sends it a proposed budget for the next fiscal year - not expected until about March 20. He said the House will rely for its slots strategy on a report by the Ways and Means Committee based on months of study since the 2003 session.

"We'll wait to see the bill that comes over and consider it like any other revenue source," Busch said.

But he quickly criticized some aspects of what was approved by the Senate - including the requirement that three of the six slots sites be at racetracks.

"There is no rationale why not to have a truly competitive bid for every location," Busch said. "The governor has designated this as a primary revenue source for Maryland for the next 20 years. It's not about horse racing, it's about providing a revenue source. If that's the case, the state should focus on generating the most money that it can."

Busch also pledged to follow the example of Senate Democrats, who removed both the Ocean Downs harness track and Dorchester County from the list of sites eligible for slot machines after the Republican senators who represent those areas objected.

Miller said the Senate's tradition of "local courtesy" gave the senators the right to keep the slots facilities out of their districts.

"I will write a letter to every delegation in the House and find out if they want slots in their communities," Busch said. "That seems to be the way the Senate decided where to allow slots. We can ask our delegations."

The measure passed by the Senate made major changes to the governor's initial proposal, on everything from where the slots facilities are to be located to what share could be kept by the owners.

Under the Senate plan, the owners of four tracks would be eligible to apply for the three racetrack slots licenses: Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Rosecroft Raceway and a site to be built in Allegany County.

But an amendment to the plan ensures that one of the three licenses is reserved for the Allegany track - and another amendment all but eliminates Rosecroft from consideration, virtually assuring slots facilities at Pimlico and Laurel.

The three non-track facilities would be permitted in Baltimore City and Cecil and Prince George's counties. Senators said the three locations are likely to be the Inner Harbor, the National Harbor development along the Potomac River and a spot along Interstate 95 near the Delaware border.

The senators who helped craft the bill said their measure is competitive because it forces a commission - appointed by the governor, Senate president and House speaker - to select among sealed bids at the different locations.

If the commission isn't satisfied with the bids - including the application fees and division of revenues promised by the bidders - it does not have to issue all of the slots licenses.

During yesterday's hourlong debate, slots supporters repeatedly emphasized how the legislation is crucial to meet Maryland's future obligations for education and provide a much-needed boost to the state's struggling horse industry.

Several said that the funding crisis in the city schools helped push them to back the bill.

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