- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. says he sees some room for compromise on a slot-machine bill even though House Speaker Michael E. Busch says there is no negotiating room.

But both Democratic leaders have been adamant in preserving their chambers’ divergent versions of the legislation.

“I think there are a number of points in the House bill that could be considered,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s and Calvert counties Democrat and a longtime slots supporter. “The problem is that there are so many sticking points in the House bill that make the bill unworkable.”

He noted his key concerns about the House bill: that slots profits would be divided among horse-racing track owners whose venues feature standardbreds and thoroughbreds; that much of the profits would go to the state; zoning restrictions on selected venues; and a lack of minority participation in venue ownership.

Still, Mr. Miller said he thinks a deal on legalizing slots is possible.

“I don’t think there are any absolutes,” he said. “It just needs to be discussed. It needs to be worked on for the good of the state … for the good of all the people.”

Last week, the Senate revised the House version of the slots bill until it was identical to the Senate’s version. The chamber then approved the revised bill and sent it to the House for consideration.

“We passed a bill that we could get 71 votes on,” Mr. Busch said of the House bill. “We passed it to the Senate, and they decided not to move on it; they killed the bill.”

He would not say whether he would allow a vote on the Senate bill.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, has said he will not appoint negotiators to iron out differences between the Senate’s and the House’s slots legislation. He said the Senate and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must accept his chamber’s version or else have no slots bill this year.

State lawmakers have said they feel no extra pressure to resolve an impasse on slot-machine legislation even as neighboring states plan to pool their slots payouts to increase their jackpots and lure more gamblers to their casinos.

Delaware, Rhode Island and West Virginia are developing a program that would combine revenue from the states’ slot machines to form a large jackpot, similar to the Powerball lottery, which pools revenue from 30 states into a single jackpot.

Gaming establishments in Delaware and West Virginia draw $309 million a year in revenue from Maryland gamblers. Pennsylvania recently enacted legislation to set up 61,000 slot machines across the state.

The House’s slots plan would authorize 9,500 machines in Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties and Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County — down from the 15,500 machines at seven venues sought by the Senate and Mr. Ehrlich. It also calls for all slots revenue to be used for school construction.

However, the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners this week took another step toward banning slot machines in the county.

On Tuesday, the board directed the county’s attorneys to draft a zoning ordinance amendment that would prohibit slot machines anywhere in the county. The draft is to be considered by the board April 26.

The action comes as the General Assembly is debating whether to legalize slots in the state. A bill passed by the House of Delegates would place 2,500 slot machines in Frederick County.

The Senate’s version would designate $150 million from slots revenue to be spent on school construction each year for eight years. Mr. Ehrlich, who estimates that slots would generate as much as $800 million a year in fees and taxes for the state, had earmarked $100 million for school construction.

“We need to move forward on this bill,” Mr. Miller said. “I am very flexible on the issue. … We all need to keep an open mind and exhibit good faith in terms of our dealing with one another so that we can pass a good bill.”

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