- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — The House yesterday narrowly passed a slot-machine gambling bill, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would have to accept his chamber’s version or else have no slots legislation this year.

In a 71-66 roll-call vote, the House mustered just enough votes to approve a bill that would authorize 9,500 slot machines in Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties, and at Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County.

Delegates applauded and cheered after the vote — the first time the House decided on the legislation since Mr. Ehrlich first introduced it in 2003.

“I believe, with the closeness of this vote, obviously, the governor and the president of the Senate are either going to have to accept this bill or I don’t believe there will be any expansion of gambling in the state of Maryland,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Mr. Busch said he will not appoint a conference committee to reconcile differences between the House bill and the Senate’s version, which calls for 15,500 slot machines to be placed in seven locations that could include Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

“I see no reason to have the formality of a conference committee,” said the House speaker, who has opposed legalizing slot-machine gambling. “If there were 80 to 85 votes [for the House bill], it would be different.”

Mr. Miller, a longtime supporter of slots legislation, accused Mr. Busch of “holding these votes in his pocket,” noting that four delegates did not vote yesterday.

“I know a couple of members were absent that committed to vote for the bill, so there is certainly a lot of wiggle room,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat. “No one has a monopoly on ideas — the speaker, the governor, myself — no one has ever ever said ‘my way or the highway’ and been successful as long as I have been here.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, echoed Mr. Miller’s comments, criticizing Mr. Busch’s maneuver.

“That is really is not the way the process is supposed to work,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich said he was pleased with the House vote, but he refused to say whether he would sign into law the House version of the slots bill. He has sought to use slots to attract gamblers to racetracks — Pimlico in Baltimore, in particular — to revive the state’s horse-racing industry. Pimlico is home of the annual Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in horse racing’s annual Triple Crown series.

Slots-related revenue — estimated at $800 million a year — is to be used for school construction and education.

“There are a lot of good things in this bill,” the governor said of the House legislation. “The fact it passed today is a big deal. It is a monumental day here, but we obviously have some issues left to discuss.”

Usually, the House and the Senate appoint negotiators to work out differences between the chambers’ legislation, producing a single bill that both chambers then vote on. If both chambers approve the compromise bill, it is sent to the governor to be signed into law or vetoed.

If the House declines to appoint a conference committee, the Senate would be forced to vote on the House’s bill.

“I see no grounds for any kind of tampering with the bill,” said Mr. Busch, who voted against the legislation. “I believe that it is in such a posture that, if it changes in any dramatic fashion, I think you lose votes.”

The House has been adamant about keeping slots out of Prince George’s County and Baltimore.

After two hours of floor debate yesterday, Mr. Busch told his fellow delegates that they would have to “live with consequences” of their decision on legalizing slot-machine gambling.

Delegate Eric M. Bromwell, who introduced the House bill, noted that Maryland’s neighbors are using slots to siphon revenue out of the state.

“Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are taking our money, our racing industry, and they are taking our children’s education. But with this bill we will take it back,” the Baltimore County Democrat said.

But Delegate Joanne C. Benson, Prince George’s County Democrat, likened slots to “crack cocaine.”

“It starts in [four] locations and it ends up in everyone’s back yard,” she said.

The House bill would set up 3,500 machines in Anne Arundel County, 2,500 in Frederick and Harford counties, and 1,000 at Rocky Gap. All of the state’s slots-related revenue would be used for school construction, not instruction.

The Senate version would establish 15,500 at four tracks and three off-track venues — the exact location of which would be determined by a commission appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. It also calls for $150 million from slots revenue be spent on school construction each year for eight years.

Mr. Ehrlich has earmarked $100 million of slots revenue for school construction.


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