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Committee scraps slots referendum

March 10, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

A Maryland House of Delegates committee scrapped a local lawmaker's call for a statewide slot machines referendum Friday in favor of appointing a legislative study group.

House leaders have decided against a referendum for now, said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

They're calling for the appointment of a joint commission to study the idea of legalizing slot machines in Maryland. Eight delegates and eight senators would serve on the commission.

"I think it was a very wise move that we take time and look at this issue," Donoghue said.

The House Ways and Means Committee stripped Donoghue's original bill (HB 800) and tacked on amendments that call for a study commission.

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Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, voted for the legislation in the committee even though he is a proponent of legalizing slot machines this year.

McKee said the move takes off the table one of two bills calling for a referendum, which would sink Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's plan to use slot machine revenues to help fill a hole in his 2004 budget.

It also gives slots proponents a "vehicle" for slots to send to the Senate in case the Senate legislation gets killed, he said.

But Donoghue warned that, as the sponsor, he has the ability to withdraw the bill at any time, especially if it's changed to legalize slots this year.

"It won't have my name on it if it does that," he said.

Under Ehrlich's slots proposal, a total of 10,500 slot machines would be legal at three of the state's racetracks - Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft.

A proposed track in Allegany County would be allowed to operate 1,000 machines. Its owner would not have to pay a licensing fee until six months before it opened.

Owners of the other three tracks each would have to pay $40 million licensing fees, down from $100 million. However, they will be required to spend $100 million each on slots facilities.

Ehrlich revised his slots plan this week to double the amount of money going to track owners to $655 million to cover their costs of operating the machines. The share going to public schools would be reduced from $800 million to $642 million.

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