Ehrlich is given a bill on slots

House leaders offer to negotiate on all items except Nov. referendum

`Process that benefits everybody'

Governor's staff to analyze plan, discuss conclusions

August 07, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Maryland House of Delegates leaders presented a bill to legalize slot machines to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday, offering to negotiate any details - except that a proposed constitutional amendment on gambling be sent to the voters this fall.

The plan, identical to one considered by the House Ways and Means Committee in April, would allow 13,500 machines at six locations across the state with operator licenses awarded through competitive bids.

"If the citizens of Maryland want this, I think this is the best product they can get," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "This is a clean, clear, open process that benefits everybody."

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, briefed top aides of the Republican governor in the morning, and administration officials met in the afternoon to discuss the proposal. Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick, who is heavily involved in the slots discussion, said Busch's willingness to put forward a bill is "a good thing."

Although the proposal "does not appear to break new ground," Schurick said, it could be a starting point for negotiations. He said he and other officials would analyze the proposal and discuss their conclusions with the governor in the next week or two.

"Nothing we've heard or seen today suggests that we've got a slots program that's ready to pass, but we haven't read and seen everything yet," he said.

The proposal comes a day after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller warned that the House leadership's opposition to slots would be a political disaster for Democrats. Without slots revenue, Ehrlich would be forced to cut deeply into popular programs to balance the budget, and Democrats would get blamed, the Prince George's County Democrat said.

Busch asked the governor for a response or counterproposal by Aug. 15. For an amendment to appear on the November ballot, the General Assembly would have to convene in special session and approve a proposal by a 60 percent margin in both houses. The deadline to put a proposal on the ballot is early next month.

Busch said he would work to round up the 85 votes needed in the House and would vote to put the measure on the ballot.

The proposal differs markedly from those offered by the governor and approved by the Senate in the past two General Assembly sessions.

Instead of concentrating slots at privately owned racetracks - a prospect that opponents said would unjustly enrich track owners - Busch's plan puts the machines mostly on state-owned land.

Proposed locations

One slots facility would be built on land leased by the state next to Laurel Park racetrack. Others would be at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort near Cumberland, along Interstate 95 in Harford County, and in Frederick and Cambridge.

Busch said the locations are designed to prevent Marylanders from leaving the state to gamble.

The bill would allot 3 percent of slots proceeds in local development grants to all counties and Baltimore City, plus another 2 percent in grants for jurisdictions where slots are located.

As much as $100 million would go toward increasing horse-racing purses and supporting the horse industry. For the first five years after slots are legalized, up to $40 million a year would be dedicated to a racetrack improvement fund.

The state lottery agency would get up to 5 percent to cover administrative costs in the first year and less in later years; the Maryland Stadium Authority would get 5 percent for acquisition and construction of slots facilities; slots operators would receive up to 25 percent of proceeds, depending on the amount they bid.

The rest of the money - slightly more than half of the total proceeds - would go toward public education.

Busch's proposal is split between a three-page constitutional amendment, which specifies the number and locations of slot machines, and a 61-page bill that outlines the other details. In his letter to Ehrlich, Busch wrote that the slots language would be in keeping with the rest of the state constitution.

"The Maryland Constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution, is nearly 500 pages long and includes provisions authorizing the purchase of land for off-street parking in Baltimore City, requiring the inspection of bank records, and setting the default interest rate on credit card late fees," Busch wrote. "Surely the issue of slots is at least as important."

Using the ballot box

Ballot-box gambling proposals have become more common in recent years as legislatures have shied away from approving gambling bills outright, said Thomas Grey, head of the Rockford, Ill.-based National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

Grey said he and other gambling foes have often been successful in defeating initiatives, but the situation in Maryland does not work in their favor. Some of the state's most prominent politicians are slots supporters, and there would be little time to organize a grass-roots anti-gambling campaign, he said.

"It would be an uphill battle," he said.

But first, Ehrlich, Miller and Busch would have to agree on a bill to send to voters and hold a special legislative session within the next few weeks. Based on how few new ideas are in Busch's proposal, a session on slots looks unlikely, said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the Republican minority whip from Southern Maryland.

"For my members, the advice I'm giving them is `Don't change your vacation plans,'" O'Donnell said. "I'm not holding my breath."

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