Pa. bill revives Md. call for slots

Miller sees special session and approval by August

Busch favors Nov. referendum

July 05, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A decision by Pennsylvania's Legislature to allow up to 61,000 slot machines at 14 sites across the state is prompting new calls for a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to consider slots legislation.

After eight hours of contentious debate, Pennsylvania's House of Representatives voted early yesterday to approve a plan to allow slot machines at seven racetracks, two resorts and five stand-alone sites. The state Senate passed the legislation Friday.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Pennsylvania's move is a "wake-up call" and predicted that a special session would be called in August and that the General Assembly would pass its own slots bill.

But the prospect seemed remote, as another key player in the Maryland slots debate, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, rejected that idea.

The Anne Arundel County Democrat noted that an improving state economy has generated higher than expected revenues, easing budget pressures.

Busch said he would consider agreeing to call a special session only if it were done for the limited purpose of authorizing a referendum for November on amending Maryland's Constitution to allow slot machine gambling.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other slots supporters oppose that idea.

The governor believes that it would be "poor public policy" to write slots into the state Constitution, said Greg Massoni, an Ehrlich spokesman.

"We know we have the votes to get slots passed," Massoni said. "All Michael Busch has to do is agree to make a [slots] bill happen, and within a matter of hours we could find agreement and call a special session" to vote on the legislation.

Maryland's Senate has voted narrowly in the past two legislative sessions to legalize slots, but the bills have stalled in the House.

The most-recent plan called for 15,500 slot machines or "video lottery terminals" at three racetrack locations and three nontrack sites in Maryland. Ehrlich has projected that the electronic gambling devices eventually would generate $800 million a year for public education improvements.

In Pennsylvania, slots proponents said the bill passed by the Legislature would raise $1 billion a year that can be used to cut property taxes, fund economic development and revive the state's horse racing industry.

Like a hammer blow

Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat who favors legalizing slots, said Pennsylvania's decision drastically changes the landscape and will force Maryland to move quickly to get into the slots business.

"I think it becomes inevitable," Miller said. "It's like getting hit in the face with a hammer. It's a wake-up call that cannot be denied.

"I expect a special session by August, and I expect a [slots] bill will pass by August," he said.

Miller conceded that Busch "definitely has the ability to keep that from happening," but said he hopes the speaker will agree to a special session.

"The governor's given up on him, but I haven't," Miller said.

Busch said passing a slots bill would have no effect on this year's state budget, which is already balanced, and that it would have only limited impact on next year's budget because of the time it would take to get a slots program running.

Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of the anti-slots group stopslotsmaryland.com, said he sees no reason for a special session to consider slots.

"All Pennsylvania has done is taken the lead in the race to the bottom," Meisner said. "Do we want to join that race or do we want to focus on the real strength of our economy?"

`A sense of panic'

Miller and other slots backers might use the Pennsylvania vote to "try to create a sense of panic," Meisner said. "But the truth is, there are only a handful of people out there calling for slots incessantly." He said "slots is too contentious and too complex an issue to resolve in a hasty special session."

But Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat and slots supporter, called the Pennsylvania vote a "catastrophe for Maryland" and said lawmakers must take swift action. "If we do not move expeditiously to enact legislation, our horse racing industry will crumble," he warned.

Davis said he supports a special session to craft a slots bill, but would not favor calling one just to place a referendum on the November ballot.

"I would welcome a special session to do a bill," Davis said. "I think the pressure will be on the speaker to agree to one."

Gov. Edward G. Rendell is expected to sign Pennsylvania's slots legislation into law today.

If 61,000 slot machines were to be installed as authorized, Pennsylvania would have more than any state but Nevada.

A seven-member gambling commission appointed by legislative leaders and the governor would award 14 slots licenses that would cost $50 million each. In addition to slots at racetracks and resorts, plans call for two slots-only casinos in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh and two at sites to be named later.

The measure would make Pennsylvania the 18th state to legalize slot-machine gambling, not including casinos run by Indian tribes, according to the American Gaming Association.

Opponents had predicted that slots would increase crime, addiction, divorce and other ills.

"Our new revenue could easily be zeroed out" by the costs of coping with those problems, said Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe, a Republican.

But House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, a Democrat, accused critics of "demagoguing" in an attempt to kill the Pennsylvania measure.

The Associated Press and The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.

Pa. slots plan at a glance

Slot machines allowed at 14 locations - seven racetracks, two resorts and five slots-only casinos.

Up to 61,000 slot machines authorized.

State expects to gain about $1 billion a year, cut property taxes, revive horse racing.

Commission to award slots licenses for $50 million each.

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