House churn on slots dizzying

November 16, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Maybe it's the streets that go in circles. It took me multiple trips to Annapolis to figure out State Circle and its adjacent little sibling, Church Circle. 'Round and 'round she goes, I used to think as I made my second or fifth pass around one of them, where she'll stop, nobody knows.

Funny, that thought has been going through my head as I've followed the very special session that the General Assembly has been having lo these three weeks now.

This week, the House has been churning over slots. Much teeth-gnashing, arm-twisting, horse-trading and foot-stomping has ensued. But after a long day, the House adjourned last night without voting; delegates will reconvene this morning.

It was an unsatisfying finish to a day of intrigue and anticipation: Was something, anything, finally, going to happen to bring this ordeal by slots debate to an end? Would the House join the Senate in sending the issue to the voters for them to make the decision that has eluded legislators for years?

In a word, no. The delegates missed the exit and are going to 'round the circle again.

The day began in particularly tortuous fashion for the officials and business owners from Ocean City and Worcester County who oppose slots at Ocean Downs race track in Berlin - they fear losing money to the one-armed bandits that otherwise is lavished on OC's attractions. On Wednesday, they got their wish when a House subcommittee voted to take Ocean Downs off the list and drop Frederick County in its place. Further tweaks included expanding the Cecil County location to include Harford County.

Which, of course, only had the effect of shifting the NIMBY outcry from the east to the north and the west. By yesterday morning, any celebrating down on the seashore was over - a committee put Ocean Downs back on the list and dropped the short-lived proposal to add Frederick and Harford counties.

Meaning: full circle. Meaning: back with the same bill the Senate has approved, which essentially is the same bill that Gov. Martin O'Malley originally proposed: 15,000 machines, spread through five locations.

The churn would continue after that. There would be a tantrum by Senate president and head slots cheerleader Mike Miller, incensed that some House delegates were considering voting for the slots referendum bill, but against the companion legislation that would spell out how it would be implemented.

There would be much hallway hovering by O'Malley and his aides, as the House convened as a whole in its chambers, broke for more private meetings and reconvened only to - you guessed it - break again. It was perhaps the most patriotic and religious day I've had lately, what with each gathering in chambers beginning with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer.

Late afternoon, O'Malley was seen giving a cheery thumbs-up to some lobbyists hanging out in the hallway. He was wearing that leather bomber jacket of his, but at least he didn't bring a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

House delegates spent much of the day out of chambers, although during a brief residency they did manage to pass a love-the-bay measure, voting to spend $50 million to clean up the Chesapeake. It was almost noncontroversial, but of course, nothing can be entirely noncontroversial during this session. Republican leaders urged their colleagues not to vote for spending money when, in their eyes, this session is supposed to be about cutting spending.

That done, the House recessed, no doubt to do the math before calling a vote on the slots bill. The delegates eventually returned, only to break for the Ways and Means committee to vote among themselves. Gathering in the so-called Silver Room - that's where the good silver is kept, really - the committee members stood in a circle and sang "Kumbaya."

No, not really. But on this day when it seemed as if anything could happen, it wouldn't have surprised me. No, instead they voted on an amendment to require any expansion of the slots bill would have to come back to the General Assembly for a vote, and automatically go to referendum.

Next, another break as House leadership continued to work on getting enough votes. By the 6:30 p.m. recovening time - I mean, 7 p.m. HST (House Standard Time) - the delegates were back in chambers, although only briefly before adjourning for the night.

Republicans charged that House leadership was stalling to round up the 85 votes it needs to pass the referendum bill; the Democratic leaders said they just needed the time to fix a procedural problem.

Whatever. Maybe this morning's prayer will be as amusing as the one that opened last night's session - a list of affirmations, one of which warned against two evils, hastiness and indecision.

No chance of that in Annapolis.

Today in Annapolis

The House of Delegates is scheduled to convene at 10 a.m. to deliberate a referendum on legalizing slot machine gambling. Legislators are expected to introduce numerous amendments to the bill. The chamber could take a final vote on the bill, depending on how long the debate lasts.

The Senate plans an 8:30 a.m. session to consider legislation passed by the House, which includes two tax bills, a budget bill concerning spending cuts and legislation creating a Chesapeake Bay fund for cleanup projects.

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