Slots' future still uncertain

Senate, House bills are far apart

compromise could prove elusive

General Assembly

February 27, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Though both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly have passed bills that would legalize slot machines, stark contrasts between the two proposals make prospects for expanded gambling as murky as ever.

The two bills - the latest of which was narrowly approved by the House of Delegates on Friday - call for different numbers of machines, different locations, different profit levels for slots operators and different ways to decide who gets licenses to run the facilities.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say the House's proposal would need major changes, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch says any amendments would scuttle the tiny majority in his chamber.

"I would say we're at second base," Miller said about the progress toward a compromise. "A lot of times people get stranded on second base."

Ehrlich has identified a few major reservations he has with the House bill. He objects to locating two venues in Western Maryland, and that slots licenses would be handed out by a commission with equal representation from the governor, the House and the Senate. He also said he wants some proceeds dedicated to operating expenses for education, rather than strictly school construction.

"We believe we can make this bill an even better bill," Ehrlich said.

But those issues could prove difficult to reconcile with the House bill because they are the result of the different philosophical approaches the House and Senate brought to the debate.

Proposals from the governor and the Senate have evolved since Ehrlich unveiled his first slots bill two years ago. The division of proceeds and the number and location of venues have changed. But the primary motivation for the governor and the Senate has remained to help the horse-racing industry compete with tracks in Delaware and West Virginia - and soon in Pennsylvania - where slots are legal.

The House, meanwhile, has focused its efforts more on maximizing the state's share of revenues; keeping Maryland gamblers in Maryland; preventing what Busch has called the unjust enrichment of moneyed interests pushing for slots; and minimizing the effect slots have on the surrounding communities.

The practical debate will center on such details as location of slots parlors, how licenses are allocated and how the proceeds will be directed.

The Senate's bill allots four slots licenses to racetracks (the House bill, in contrast, likely would result in one slots parlor at a track) and gives racetrack slots operators up to 36 percent of the take, compared with 30 percent for other operators. The House bill would give all licensees up to 30 percent of the take.

The House bill places two venues near major highways in Harford and Frederick counties to divert gamblers on their way to slots parlors in Delaware and West Virginia. A third would go in between Baltimore and Washington, and a fourth would be near Rocky Gap, the state-owned golf resort in Allegany County.

Who gets to decide

A key to the House bill is the commission that would run a competitive bidding process to decide who would get slots licenses. It would have two representatives each from the governor, Senate president and House speaker and be chaired by someone designated by the state treasurer, who is chosen by the General Assembly. In the Senate bill, the governor would control a majority on a commission to grant licenses.

The House bill "doesn't put the responsibility on one person or one group over another," said Del. Eric M. Bromwell, the Baltimore County Democrat who was the lead sponsor. "I think it's a fair representation of the major players."

The Senate bill dedicates more money to education and school construction than did Ehrlich's original proposal, and this year's version does not explicitly name any sites - a move Miller said was designed to dispel the notion that the bill was designed merely to enrich track owners.

"This bill is not about who won," Ehrlich said. "This bill is about Maryland farmers, about Maryland breeders, Maryland veterinarians, about the Preakness, about public school construction, K-12 funding."

Where they would go

On the subject of location, the governor has said he would not support slots at Ocean Downs in Ocean City or at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Slots foes say that leaves four track licenses for the state's three other tracks - Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft - and one yet to be built in Allegany County.

Delegates from Prince George's County and Baltimore strongly object to slots in their jurisdictions, making compromise on locations difficult given the thin margin in the House, members said.

"I can give you five or 10 people who are off if Pimlico or Timonium show up," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who was one of the last to register his vote in favor of slots Friday. "It's either this or nothing, really."

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