Key legislative panel approves House slots bill by 13-5 margin

Proposal might come to a floor vote Friday

General Assembly

February 24, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

After scuttling Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top priority for the past two years, a key legislative committee approved a slot-machine gambling bill yesterday, setting up a long-awaited vote by the full House of Delegates as soon as tomorrow.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 13-5, with three delegates abstaining, on a version largely shaped by Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch. The speaker has been portrayed by Republicans as a major obstruction to the governor's initiatives, but a floor vote - long demanded by the governor - could ease that criticism.

The committee altered a Busch draft yesterday by dropping the Eastern Shore as a gambling destination and adding machines instead to the money-losing, state-owned Rocky Gap lodge in Allegany County. The bill also differs significantly from legislation approved last week in the Senate.

The outcome in the full House remains uncertain. Top Democrats said that if 35 of 43 Republicans don't commit to the plan, the bill will not pass.

"It's very close. They're still counting votes," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Ehrlich launched his lobbying effort last night to collect GOP votes, inviting House Republicans to the governor's mansion for dinner. But Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for the governor, said Republican support for the House plan is less than solid.

"Some delegates who indicated support a year ago are not going to be able to support this bill on the House floor," he said, adding that 35 GOP votes "is not in the realm of the possible right now," but 30 votes would be "a responsible and aggressive goal."

Committee members adopted several changes to a draft of the legislation yesterday. The changes are designed to help win votes and assist certain interests.

In one alteration, some of the money from slots proceeds would be used to give more education funds to some of the state's largest jurisdictions, including Montgomery County and Baltimore, to compensate them for the higher costs of recruiting and retaining teachers.

Those jurisdictions were supposed to receive the additional funds under a landmark schools reform package known as the Thornton plan. But Ehrlich has not included money for a part of the plan, the so-called geographical cost index, in his last two budgets, arguing that it is not mandatory.

Adding the money is intended to draw support from lawmakers in populous Montgomery, where support for slots is weak.

In another change, committee members voted unanimously to move 1,000 potential slot machines from Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore to the Rocky Gap resort and lodge in Allegany County.

Hixson said that Eastern Shore Republicans were opposed to slots in Cambridge or elsewhere in Dorchester. State-owned Rocky Gap has lost money for years, and some lawmakers raised the prospect that if slots are allowed there, the resort could be sold to private business interests.

The House plan would allow 9,500 machines in four counties: Anne Arundel, Harford, Frederick and Allegany.

While the Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel is a favored location of many lawmakers, track owners would have to bid for a license to operate the machines.

To help bolster the racetrack's chances, the Laurel owners successfully pushed for an amendment that would require the commission awarding slots licenses to consider whether an existing industry would be helped by the location decision.

Several committee members said they were only reluctantly voting for slots.

"I am really very uncomfortable with this whole bill and this whole concept," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat and vice chairman of the committee.

While no slots would be allowed in Baltimore under the current House plan, city lawmakers made sure that the area around the aging Pimlico race course would benefit from the legislation. The House bill requires that a portion of the money that Baltimore would receive from gambling would be spent in the Park Heights neighborhood.

The committee came within one vote of allowing Worcester County, home to Ocean City and the Ocean Downs harness track, to have slots. But Ehrlich has said he would veto a slots bill if either Ocean City or Timonium, home of the Maryland state fairgrounds, was included.

Staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

Dueling slots plans

House

Number of machines: 9,500.

Four locations, one each in Anne Arundel, Frederick, Harford and Allegany counties.

Licenses awarded through a competitive bid by a panel headed by the state treasurer; license holders would receive up to 30 percent of proceeds after winners are paid.

State share: $330 million annually, mainly for school construction, with $50 million for education and about $160 million for counties and Baltimore City.

Senate

Number of machines: 15,500.

Seven locations, four at racetracks and three at nontrack locations anywhere in the state.

Licenses to be awarded by a commission controlled by the governor; track license holders to receive up to 36 percent of proceeds; nontrack locations get up to 30 percent.

State share: Estimated $915 million annually, for school operations and construction.

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