- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A state Senate committee voted yesterday to authorize 15,500 slot machines at up to six locations scattered from Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore to Allegany County in Western Maryland.

The Budget and Taxation Committee approved a heavily amended version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s slots bill on an 11-2 vote after agreeing to the governor’s demand that it eliminate Ocean Downs in Worcester County as a potential location for slots.

“All the changes are changes we can live with. We are pleased with today’s developments,” Mr. Ehrlich said after the committee vote.

He said a number of the latest revisions were negotiated between his administration and legislative leaders.

The bill, which will come to the Senate for debate this week, would:

• Authorize up to 9,000 slot machines at three horse-racing tracks with Laurel Park, Pimlico, Rosecroft and a new track in Allegany County allowed to bid for the three licenses.

• Authorize 6,500 machines at three off-track locations that could be placed in Dorchester, Cecil and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore city.

• Provide for competitive bidding at all six sites with the operators allowed to get a maximum share of gross receipts of 30 percent at off-track sites and 36 percent at racetracks.

The legislature’s fiscal agency estimates that at least 51.4 percent of the revenue from slot machines — more than $828 million — would be available to increase aid to public schools.

The committee’s changes in the bill — including requiring competitive bidding and authorizing sites near state lines — would meet some of the objections of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who was instrumental in killing last year’s bill.

“To comment on it, I would have to see the bill,” Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said.

But he said it is interesting that the committee found a site on the Eastern Shore as well as Cecil County on the Pennsylvania state line and sites in Prince George’s County near Virginia and the District.

“If you are going to attract money that’s going out of state already, you have to obviously put them in different areas,” he said.

William Rickman, who has a license to build a track in Allegany County, said it “remains to be seen” whether that would be a profitable location for slot machines. That would depend on what changes are made as the bill moves through the legislature, he said.

W. Minor Carter, lobbyist for an antigambling organization, stopslotsmaryland.com, said the Senate committee vote is just an early step in the process and does not foreshadow passage of the bill.

“I think there’s a long way to go,” he said. “We’re not even in the first quarter yet.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, and Mr. Ehrlich both predicted that the slots bill will win approval in the Senate, as it did last year.

“We look forward to a strong vote on the Senate floor,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

The governor also predicted the bill will be approved in the House unless Mr. Busch uses the power of his office to keep it from coming to a vote.

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