Senate panel OKs slots bill altered to appease House

Proposal would allow up to seven sites but doesn't specify locations

February 12, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A state Senate committee yesterday endorsed a slot machine gambling proposal for the third year in a row, this time adding a few twists designed to pacify opponents in the House of Delegates - and, some lawmakers say, satisfy the competing, deep-pocketed interests that hope to profit from slots.

The proposal, which passed the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee by an 11-2 vote, mostly mirrors Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan for 15,500 slot machines around the state with the proceeds going to shore up the racing industry, build new schools and pay for the state's stepped-up education funding program.

But unlike the governor's version, the bill headed to the floor of the Senate does not specify any of the locations where slots would be allowed, a move supporters said would mollify those who object to gambling in their communities and those who thought previous bills were a means to unjustly enrich political supporters.

The bill would allow slots in as many as seven locations around the state, four of them at racetracks. The Senate plan also would designate $50 million more a year for school construction than Ehrlich's plan allotted.

"It's a big question as to whether or not some districts want or would accept video lottery," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee. "Hopefully, this will give the legislators in the House some flexibility to allow them to be part of a solution."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who said he expected the bill to pass the full Senate next week, said he would have preferred to specify locations so Marylanders knew exactly what they were getting.

But, he said, the change eliminated the argument that the bill provided an entitlement for track owners, because no locations were named in the bill. The governor's bill would have put slots at Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft racetracks and at one track to be built in western Maryland, plus two nonracetrack locations.

The proposal would empower a new commission, controlled by the governor, to decide where the machines would be located. As many as 5,000 machines could go in any one location but no more than 7,500 in a county or Baltimore City.

Ehrlich Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said the Senate slots bill was acceptable to the administration but that the governor also would be willing to negotiate with the House.

"The important thing is to move this out of the legislature," DiPaula said. "We've missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars with this delay."

But House leaders said the opposition blocs in that chamber have not diminished.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the Baltimore City House delegation, which opposed the most recent slots bill, said the lack of specified sites only reinforced her objections.

"I think the vagueness of it as far as location will make people even more skeptical," she said. "The thought of 7,500 slot machines possibly coming to Baltimore City is stressful, to say the least, to me."

The slots landscape has grown more complicated since Pennsylvania passed a slots initiative and the family of Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos began negotiations to buy the Rosecroft harness racing track, which many legislators believed was a prelude to a push for slots there.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the only difference between last year's bill and this one is that none of the wealthy interests looking to profit from gambling is left out. If locations aren't spelled out in the bill, he said, they might as well be.

The bill calls for four racetrack locations. There currently are five racetracks in the state, with one due to be built in western Maryland. Ehrlich has said he would not support slots at Ocean Downs or the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, so that leaves four licenses for four tracks, Busch said.

"It sounds to me like you've got all four tracks taken care of," Busch said. "Four tracks and they all get entitlements."

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to take up slots legislation Wednesday.

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