- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland House Ways and Means Committee yesterday approved a slot-machine gambling bill that scales back the number of venues and machines sought by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Senate.

In a 14-5 roll-call vote, the committee — which had killed similar legislation in the past two years — passed a bill that would authorize 9,500 machines — 3,500 in Anne Arundel, 2,500 in Frederick and Harford counties and at 1,000 at Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County. Three Democrats abstained from voting.

The committee’s chairman — Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat — said that plan will be the only one that the House will consider to authorize slot machines in the state.

“We voted on [the Senate] bill twice and killed it,” Mrs. Hixson said. “We are pretty strongly set that this is our offer.”

Mrs. Hixson said she expects that the full House will vote on the bill no later than Saturday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he did not know when the bill would come up for its first reading. It could occur as early as today.

The House Ways and Means Committee did not even consider Mr. Ehrlich’s or the Senate’s bills, and instead passed an altered version of legislation introduced by Delegate Eric M. Bromwell, Baltimore County Democrat. Mr. Bromwell’s original bill called for 3,500 slot machines each to be placed in Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Frederick and Harford counties.

The proposed placement of slot machines in Baltimore and in Prince George’s County has been a point of contention in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Mr. Ehrlich had called for 15,500 machines to be set up at four horse-racing tracks — including Pimlico in Baltimore and Rosecroft in Fort Washington — and three off-track sites.

The Senate last week altered his plan to include a provision that would allow a commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to determine where to set up the machines, leaving open the placing of slots in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.

But the House excluded Baltimore and Prince George’s from its plan.

Prince George’s delegation had been united in its opposition to slots, but Delegate Anne Healey voted for the measure yesterday “to protect the interest” of the county.

“I am really very uncomfortable with the whole bill,” she said.

Delegate Jean Cryor, Montgomery Republican, said she voted for the bill even though she would like to see more money spent on the Thornton Education Act, which calls for more than $1 billion of spending on school construction and instruction.

“I believe it’s a flawed bill,” she said.

Asked whether she thought committee members would change their votes on the House floor, Mrs. Hixson said, “My understanding is that they would stay with the committee on the floor.”

The gambling legislation aims to generate funds for education initiatives with revenue from slots licenses and profits. Mr. Ehrlich has predicted that the plan could generate as much as $800 million a year for schools and has earmarked $100 million of slots revenue for school construction.

The Senate version would require that $150 million from slots revenue be spent on public school construction each year for eight years.

Meanwhile, church leaders yesterday held a press conference in Annapolis to declare the first two weekends in March as “Stop Slots Sabbaths” — a campaign sponsored by the group Stop Slots Maryland.

The Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, president of the Collective Banking Group of Prince George’s County, a group of 200 churches that oppose slots, said the campaign will use the weekends to educate parishioners on why they should oppose gambling.

“We are in disbelief that our own government would force this upon our communities,” said Mr. Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church, a 2,000-member congregation in Bowie. “As clergy, we are sworn to uphold the dignity of our people.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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