- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — An indication of where Maryland is headed on slot machine gambling could emerge this week when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. submits his plan to legalize slots and a House committee issues a report on its four-month study of expanded gambling in Maryland.

Ehrlich aides say his bill will be similar to the one he proposed last year, which passed the Senate but was killed in the House. That bill would have authorized machines at four racetracks.

But the Republican governor’s bill is expected to include one significant change, offering the possibility that slot machines could be authorized at one or two locations other than tracks.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which killed Mr. Ehrlich’s bill last April, plans to issue its report Tuesday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the report will propose guidelines the legislature should follow if slot machines are legalized in Maryland.

“If the governor is going to push legislation, these are the things he ought to take into consideration,” Mr. Busch said.

“I believe, obviously, that the facilities should be owned by the state,” Mr. Busch said. “We will have more details on that.”

He said the committee will recommend geographic areas where slots should be located. Mr. Ehrlich’s bill is expected to guarantee that racetracks will get a share of the slot machines in addition to machines that could be placed at other locations.

The House committee does not agree with a key element of the governor’s 2003 bill, which established the percentage of the money lost by gamblers that would be kept by owners of tracks. Mr. Ehrlich proposed giving track owners 43.6 percent of the proceeds, but the Senate cut it to 39 percent before passing the governor’s bill.

“It doesn’t look like there’s any magic to having one set of percentage payouts because each location can be different,” Mr. Busch said.

The state can’t get the best deal and wind up with the most revenue from gambling “unless you have competitive bidding,” he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime supporter of slot machines, helped push Mr. Ehrlich’s bill through the Senate last year, and he said last week it will pass again this year with help from most of the Republican members of the Senate.

Republican senators traditionally opposed slot machines, but most have put aside their objections to vote with the governor.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Ehrlich say if Mr. Busch, who opposes slots, steps aside and does not use his influence to kill the bill in the House, it will pass the General Assembly this year.

The speaker has said he will wait to see what the Senate will do, but has not committed himself beyond that.

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