The Maryland House of Delegates approved a slots bill yesterday by the thinnest possible margin, moving Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature initiative closer than ever to passage, after three years of often vitriolic negotiations.
Uncorked after years of waiting, yesterday's vigorous 90-minute debate marked the first time that the full House had argued the merits of slot-machine gambling. Many lawmakers decried placing 9,500 slot machines in slots barns along highways, saying that paychecks would disappear and families would be wrecked by an avoidable addiction.
"This snake will wiggle its way into our homes, into our hearts, into our heads and into our bank accounts," said Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a pastor and Baltimore County Democrat.
But proponents said a limited program would recapture money Marylanders are spending on slots in Delaware, West Virginia and, soon, Pennsylvania.
"We are being robbed," said Del. Eric M. Bromwell, the lead sponsor of the legislation and a Democrat from Baltimore County. "You've seen the billboards; you've seen the commercials."
The long-awaited, 71-66 vote came after impassioned speeches during which some lawmakers described firsthand experiences with gambling.
Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's County Democrat, told of taking in destitute children whose parents had gambled away their wages when she was a young teacher in Southern Maryland, when slots were legal there. Del. Gareth E. Murray, a Montgomery County Democrat, talked about the failed promises of the gambling industry in still-struggling communities such as East St. Louis, Ill., and Atlantic City, N.J.
"What makes you think that these folks will come through for you?" Murray said. "It doesn't work that way. Reality says, it ain't happening."
Despite strong opposition, the narrow passage was carefully orchestrated by House Speaker Michael E. Busch - a slots opponent - to give delegates a chance to vote on a touchy issue while removing the stigma of repeatedly blocking Ehrlich's top priority.
"For me, it is like a weight leaving my shoulders," said Busch, a Democrat who has led the effort to kill the Republican governor's gambling initiative for the past two years.
The outcome sets up a high-stakes showdown with the Senate, which passed a far different version last week of a slots bill preferred by Ehrlich.
But the vote count, the speaker said, demonstrates that the legislation cannot be altered to accommodate changes desired by Ehrlich or the Senate.
Ehrlich and his aides worked aggressively to win supporters. Some Republican lawmakers were summoned to the governor's office just minutes before the vote. Ehrlich staffers and gambling industry lobbyists roamed the House building all morning, compiling vote counts.
Seventy-one votes is the precise number needed in the 141-member House for a constitutional majority; four delegates were absent.
A slots bill cannot become law unless both chambers approve the same version - and major differences are typically resolved by a select committee of negotiators.
But Busch said he sees little reason to create such a panel, setting up an unpalatable take-it-or-leave-it choice for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and the governor. Any alterations, Busch said, would leave a compromise bill without enough supporters to pass.
"I see no grounds for any kind of tampering with the bill," Busch said. "I see no reason to have the formality of a conference committee."
Miller rejected that challenge yesterday, saying that there is room for compromise and asserting that the speaker is holding votes in reserve if needed.
"Nobody has a monopoly on ideas. No one has ever, ever, ever said, `My way or the highway,' as long as I have been here, and been successful," Miller said. "I would just as soon leave a bill on the table before anybody says, `It's my way or the highway.'"
The House proposal authorizes 9,500 slot machines at four locations with operators chosen through competitive bidding. It would generate about $330 million for school construction and $50 million for classroom operations. The Senate version would allow 15,500 machines at seven sites - four of them racetracks - generating $760 million a year for schools.
Ehrlich said he thought negotiations would now begin in earnest. "This is a great day for Maryland horse racing, Maryland education, Maryland school construction and Maryland farmers," the governor said. "It's not over yet. We know that, but halftime's over. We need to have a conference. We believe we can make this bill an even better bill."
Yesterday's vote sets the stage for possible weeks of private meetings between the state's three top political leaders.
The 90-day legislative session ends April 11. If no compromise is reached by then, the gambling plan will die for the third consecutive year.