A state Senate committee rejected the House of Delegates' plan for slot machines yesterday and substituted its own, more expansive proposal - a move slots opponents say makes legalized slot machines much less likely to win legislative approval this year.
The Budget and Taxation Committee took the House's slots proposal and amended it into a carbon copy of the bill the Senate passed last month. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he expects the Senate will pass the amended version early next week.
"If they want to kill the bill, they can kill the bill," Miller said. "But if they want a bill that'll work, we'll certainly talk to them."
The Senate has passed similar versions of its slots bill three years in a row. In the last two years, the bills didn't get votes on the House floor. But this year, the House passed a significantly different bill, which Miller has called unacceptable.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has made slots one of his highest-profile issues, also has objected to elements of the House bill, such as how the proceeds would be split and how locations would be determined.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has said that any changes to the House bill would cause support in his chamber to evaporate, said the Senate's action effectively ends the chances for slots this year.
"The Senate of Maryland has been the biggest promoter of slots. They had the chance to embrace a bill that would be supported by the administration and signed into law," Busch said. "They missed their opportunity."
The House bill calls for 9,500 machines at locations near major highways in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties. Locations and operators for the slots facilities would be chosen through competitive bidding.
The Senate version would allow up to 15,500 slots in seven locations, including four racetracks. None of the locations is specified in the bill. They would be chosen by a commission controlled by the governor.
Miller said he hopes a spirit of cooperation will prevail.
"There's a procedure that's been in place since Colonial times to resolve differences, and I hope both sides avail themselves of it," Miller said, alluding to work in a conference committee.
If the two chambers wanted to reconcile the two bills, normally they would appoint a committee to negotiate. But Busch said he sees no reason to appoint one.
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of the leading slots opponents in the House, said the greed of gambling interests - who would have received more machines and a larger share of the proceeds in the Senate bill - will prevent slot machines in Maryland this year.
"There was a scintilla of a possibility out there that they might just pass the House bill unamended and send it to the governor," Franchot said. "Now that's gone."