House expected to vote today on slot-machine legislation

Bill differs from measure OK'd last week by Senate

General Assembly

February 25, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The Maryland House of Delegates yesterday launched its most extensive debate to date on slot-machine gambling, setting up an expected final vote today on its version of legislation that has dominated Annapolis since the election of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Here it is guys, at last," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, introducing on the House floor a bill crafted by her panel earlier this week. "I'm sure you all made up your minds, and will all do the right thing."

The bill - unchanged despite attempts to amend it last night - would authorize 9,500 slot machines at four locations in Anne Arundel, Harford and Frederick counties, and at the state-owned and money-losing Rocky Gap resort in Allegany County.

A House vote on the bill is expected today, and Speaker Michael E. Busch indicated last night that if it is approved, he sees little need to compromise with the Senate, which passed a different version of a slots plan last week.

Busch's stance could set up a dramatic all-or-nothing choice for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and the governor, who have long supported slots. The Senate has approved a slots bill three years in a row. Two of those bills died in the House.

Busch said the House bill accommodates the governor by ruling out slots at the Ocean Downs harness track near Ocean City and at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. It abides by the wishes of lawmakers in Baltimore and Prince George's County by omitting machines in those locations, he said.

"What's the issue that they shouldn't embrace this legislation?" asked Busch, adding that he intends to vote against the bill because he remains personally opposed to slots. "They can't be against competitive bidding [for licenses]."

Del. George C. Edwards, the House Republican leader from Western Maryland, said many Republicans are looking at today's vote as just a preliminary step.

Such large differences exist between the House bill and the Senate bill - which more closely resembles the governor's proposal - that a select committee of negotiators would be needed to reconcile them, he said.

"We're working hard, and we'll do our part," Edwards said.

Ehrlich's communications director, Paul Schurick, said administration officials spent yesterday meeting with delegates from both parties in an effort to raise support for the bill, even though they prefer the Senate version.

Schurick said he thinks the governor can deliver roughly 30 votes from the Republican caucus, short of the 35 Republicans that Democratic leaders have said would be needed for the bill to pass.

"This is a flawed bill, and that makes it hard for some people to support it," Schurick said.

Miller said it was too soon to make predictions. "It's certainly farther than we've ever gotten," Miller said. "It depends on the Speaker, if he tells people to vote no, if he changes his mind. It's a very fluid situation."

Discussion on the floor of the House came after a day of lobbyists jockeying to position themselves for final negotiations.

The black legislative caucus debated ways to get more money for minority communities and business interests. But the House rejected an amendment last night to set aside about $15 million a year for loans for small and minority businesses.

House members also defeated an amendment, by an unusual 66-66 tie vote, to prohibit campaign donations from the gambling industry, despite a vigorous plea from Del. Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"For the past three years organized gambling has tied this General Assembly in knots," Simmons said.

Staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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