Senate kills efforts to limit where slots may be placed

Ehrlich bill faces possible defeat by delegates

General Assembly

February 17, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The state Senate rejected yesterday attempts to exempt Prince George's County, Timonium and downtown Baltimore from the governor's slot machine gambling proposal, which the body is poised to pass for the third year in a row in what supporters see as the last push for slots before the next election.

But the bill faces an uncertain fate in the House of Delegates, where the Ways and Means Committee held an hours-long meeting yesterday on slots legislation, which has died in the House for the last two years.

Scores of slots supporters and opponents sporting T-shirts, buttons and stickers lined up to testify on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legislation to expand gambling at racetracks and other locations around the state.

Lawmakers on both sides of the slots question said yesterday that Pennsylvania's decision last summer to legalize slots and the approach of the 2006 election for the governor and General Assembly members make this year's decision pivotal.

"The Democrats need this issue. We need to take it away from Gov. Ehrlich and the Republicans," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, the lead slots proponent in the legislature. "If it's not done this year, it's not going to come up next year."

Miller has worked to generate momentum for the bill this year by pushing it quickly through the Senate. The current version of the bill would allow up to 15,500 slot machines divided among as many as seven locations around the state, four of them at racetracks.

Yesterday, in the moments before votes on amendments, he stepped down from the president's chair to buttonhole senators on the floor and limit the number of changes to the proposal.

Sens. Gwendolyn T. Britt and Nathaniel Exum, both Prince George's County Democrats, failed to win support for an amendment to eliminate their county from contention for a slots site.

Delegates from Prince George's, where Rosecroft Raceway and other locations have been considered for slots, are against expanded gambling in the county and were instrumental in killing a bill last fall.

The chamber also voted down amendments by Sens. James Brochin and George W. Della Jr., Democrats from Baltimore County and Baltimore City, to exclude the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium and a possible future "supertrack" near the stadiums in downtown Baltimore as possible slots locations.

Slots opponents also stepped up their efforts yesterday, holding a news conference and sending dozens of people to testify at the Ways and Means hearing.

"Do we want our financial future to be based on gambling, or do we want it to be based on high-paying jobs?" Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said at the anti-slots news conference. "We want our children to be doctors and lab technicians and scientists. We don't want them working in a cage and making change for people."

Supporters held a small rally of their own outside the State House and packed the committee room.

"Whoever says these are bad jobs, low-paying jobs you don't want to get doesn't know what they're talking about," said Michael Jeffra, a parking lot attendant at Pimlico and Laurel racetracks for 27 years. "These are good jobs, union jobs, and I've made a good living."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the House is unlikely to adopt a bill similar to the Senate version in which no slots locations are spelled out. But because legislators often object to slots in their districts, it will be difficult to find a combination that wins majority support in that chamber, he said.

"What we've tried to do is establish parameters of where we believe there would be limited opposition to the facilities and where it keeps money in the state and where we can have a competitive bidding process for the licenses rather than an entitlement," Busch said.

Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., who led the administration's presentation to the Ways and Means Committee on the governor's behalf, said anything in the bill is negotiable.

At a state Board of Public Works meeting earlier in the day, another member of the administration provided a new justification for legalizing slots.

State lottery director Buddy Roogow told Ehrlich that there are "thousands" of slot machines already in Maryland - most of which are unregulated and illegal. The machines are impeding the growth of the state lottery, Roogow said, which is the general fund's third-largest source of revenue.

"The irony here is Marylanders can play in West Virginia, Delaware, soon Pennsylvania, Atlantic City, and help those economies. They can also play in Maryland, and not do anything for our economy," Roogow said.

Lobbyists say the Ehrlich administration is exploring the option of declaring that a slots-type machine is legal in Maryland under existing law and could be regulated, with money coming into the state's coffers regardless of what the Assembly decides on slots legislation.

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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