House OKs slots plan by 2 votes

2 chambers must reconcile differences on referendum

General Assembly -- Special Session

November 17, 2007|By Laura Smitherman and James Drew | Laura Smitherman and James Drew,SUN REPORTERS

After days of vote wrangling that lasted until the final seconds of the roll call, the House of Delegates narrowly approved a plan yesterday to let voters decide next year whether slot machine gambling should be legalized in Maryland.

"Tonight was a major tipping point," Gov. Martin O'Malley said after the vote. "We still have a long way to go. We still have other steps to take, so stay tuned."

The House voted 86 to 52 -one more vote than needed - to put a slots referendum that would change the state Constitution on the November 2008 ballot. Five Republican delegates joined 81 Democrats in supporting the measure.

The House and the Senate must reconcile their differences over their respective referendum bills. Also, the House Ways and Means Committee plans to take up a companion bill this morning that lays out the details of how a slots program would be implemented.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said he does not know whether he has the simple majority of 71 votes to pass the companion bill, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said passing one bill without the other would amount to "fraud."

Busch had been working with O'Malley for days to win over a "supermajority" of 85 votes, or three-fifths of the delegates, required to pass the constitutional amendment. It wasn't until the vote was under way that they secured the last couple of votes needed.

"For five years, we have not been able to build consensus" on the slots issue, Busch said. "The citizens of Maryland want resolution and overwhelmingly, by the polls you read, would like an opportunity to vote on the issue."

Del. Roger Manno, a freshman Democrat from Montgomery County, said he agreed to vote for the bill at the behest of Busch aides who fanned out through the chamber when the vote count came up short and Busch held up the final tally. Afterward, O'Malley approached Manno outside the chamber to shake his hand and said, "I know that was hard on you. Thank you."

"My heart was heavy from beginning to end," said Manno, who is "philosophically opposed" to slots but agreed to let voters decide. "I do think that democratically this is the way to go."

Miller has said he intends to await House action on the second bill before negotiating a compromise on the referendum bill. The Senate passed both slots bill last week.

The companion bill is controversial because it sets aside up to $100 million for the struggling horse racing industry, and several legislators contend that the locations are defined so that only a select group of gambling interests are expected to benefit.

"We are about to enshrine in our Constitution ... who gets to be a billionaire," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Western Maryland Republican and the minority whip.

The slots referendum is a major piece of a legislative package proposed by O'Malley during this special session to close a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall through tax increases and spending cutbacks, while allotting more for transportation, health care and Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

While many GOP members supported slots legislation in the past, they objected to changing the state Constitution and to sending the issue to a referendum. The legislature has the power to legalize slots by a simple majority vote. Before the session began, O'Malley backed away from seeking an up-or-down vote and decided instead to seek a referendum. That change, along with several tweaks to the bill in recent days, won over many legislators who were opposed to expanding gambling in the state. It also appeared to break an impasse between Busch, who personally opposes slots, and Miller, a slots supporter.

Under O'Malley's plan, voters would decide whether to allow 15,000 slot machines at five locations - in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel, Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties.

The Senate would allow gambling to be expanded to other sites or to include table games only through a three-fifths vote of the legislature, while the House would allow that to happen only if a majority from both chambers vote on a referendum approved by voters.

Also, the House bill stipulates that slot parlors must comply with local planning and zoning laws, a provision that could give local officials more say over facilities in their jurisdictions.

Del. James N. Mathias Jr., an Eastern Shore Democrat and former Ocean City mayor, failed to remove the Worcester location that includes Ocean Downs racetrack from the bill through an amendment. He said the added zoning language in the bill didn't give him enough of an assurance that the county could prevent a slots parlor from being located there.

The House also rejected amendments to restrict campaign contributions from gambling companies; to choose slots operators through a government-run auction instead of by listing the areas in the constitutional amendment; and to lower the number of slot machines to 9,500.

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