Slots duel to be won, lost in the trenches

Factions measure progress 1 vote at a time

GENERAL ASSEMBLY special session

November 14, 2007|By Laura Smitherman and James Drew | Laura Smitherman and James Drew,Sun reporters

When Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a voter referendum on legalizing slot machine gambling, freshman Del. Craig L. Rice opposed it because he thought the General Assembly should decide major policy decisions and not send them to the ballot box.

But Rice changed his mind when fellow legislators who represent the proposed sites for slots parlors asked him to vote for the referendum.

"Slots are not proposed for my district, so I deferred to them," said Rice, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County.

The hunt for votes has intensified in Annapolis as the House of Delegates weighs a measure that would put slot machine gambling before the voters in November 2008, possibly ending years of gridlock in the state capital over the issue. Supporters were scrambling yesterday to line up the final votes to ensure the "super-majority" needed for the referendum to clear the House, where opposition to slots has been strong.

Not only are legislators lobbying one another, but the Democratic governor is talking to legislators to garner support for the historic referendum. House leaders have taken preliminary whip counts, and Del. Kumar P. Barve, the majority leader, said yesterday that they are probably close to lining up the needed 85 votes.

"I have never lost a vote on the floor yet, and I don't plan to do so now," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee that is crafting the slots bills. "To me, it's an easy vote. You're asking the people do they want this or not."

Meanwhile, anti-slots factions have a whip count of their own and say they still hope to defeat the measure. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a leading opponent, carried a vote-tally sheet around the House chamber yesterday. The Montgomery County Democrat said he was targeting "wobbly Democrats" and counting on Republican opposition.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who has resisted bringing slots to Maryland but backs a referendum, has not used strong-arm tactics, according to several delegates, but he has tried to gradually build consensus. Busch noted yesterday that support for two tax bills didn't coalesce until hours before the vote last weekend. At one point, a whip count showed that one of the tax bills was almost 30 votes shy of the 71 needed for passage.

The referendum bill would put a constitutional amendment legalizing slots to voters. Another bill, which needs a simple majority in the 141-member chamber, would govern how the program works and is contingent on passage of the referendum bill and voter ratification.

A House subcommittee began considering amendments to the slots legislation last night, and bills could be ready for consideration by the full House as early as tomorrow. Delegates are still debating what slots sites should be included in the legislation.

The Senate passed versions of both bills last week. The General Assembly is in the third week of a special session that O'Malley called to close the state's projected $1.7 billion budget deficit by raising revenue through a variety of taxes, spending cuts and legalized slot machines.

After years of debate, most legislators' positions on slots are firmly established. But the referendum and O'Malley's proposed structure for a slots program have thrown the dynamics into flux.

Some legislators say they oppose slots but might vote for a referendum as a way to resolve an issue that has languished in the General Assembly for years. Others who support slots, including Republicans who fought for slots with former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for years, say they don't like the idea of a referendum and object to the slots program envisioned by O'Malley.

The governor would put 15,000 slot machines in five predetermined sites that are narrowly defined, and critics contend that only a handful of gambling interests are expected to secure the licenses. The proposed locations are in Baltimore City and in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.

"There's no true auction for these licenses, and there's nothing to prevent these chosen people from auctioning their licenses off in a year or two," said Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties. "We need a much better slots bill if we're going to have one at all."

A not-in-my-backyard mentality has dictated some legislators' stances on slots. The exclusion of Prince George's County, where Rosecroft Raceway is located, from the bill appears to have helped draw support from Democrats in that delegation who are generally opposed to slots. The Senate rejected an attempt to add Rosecroft as a site, and Busch said the House won't revive the idea.

"No. Absolutely not," Busch said. "There's been no interest from Prince George's in having a facility there."

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