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Senate approves slots bill

March 24, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

A plan to legalize slot machines at Maryland racetracks received narrow approval in the state Senate on Saturday, leaving supporters just two weeks to convince skeptics in the House of Delegates.

In the 25-21 vote, two Washington County senators voted in favor of slots and one voted against it.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, one of the plan's harshest critics, said the close vote signals the lingering doubts of lawmakers.

"Right now, we don't see any reason to implement a program. There's no urgency, said Busch, D-Anne Arundel. "There's still a lot of unanswered questions."

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The Senate-approved bill would generate about $700 million a year for public schools when all 10,500 machines are in operation.

In three years, it would allow 1,000 slot machines at a proposed racetrack in Allegany County, just west of Washington County.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who has made the slots bill the top priority of his administration, said he was satisfied with the Senate vote and will work to forge a compromise with House leaders.

"Given all the obstacles thrown up over the past six weeks, we're very pleased," Ehrlich said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, a 28-year veteran of the Maryland General Assembly, said he believes the Legislature will agree on a slots plan this year.

"The governor and the (Senate) president are prepared to keep us here until people in the House decide to support a slots bill," said Munson, R-Washington.

Although the session officially ends April 7, the governor must extend it if the Legislature does not pass the state's budget.

The House has passed a $22.6 billion state budget that does not rely on slot machine money. The Senate will consider the budget this week.

Under the Senate slots plan, track owners would get $594.8 million, which is considerably less than under the governor's plan.

Ehrlich had proposed giving them 43.6 percent of the take from the slot machines, or about $665 million. The new version of the bill would reduce the share to 39 percent. The Senate plan sets aside 48.2 percent of the revenues for education, as opposed to 42.1 percent under Ehrlich's proposal.

"I think it's a good, defendable product that's going to raise a lot of money that would otherwise be raised by raising taxes," Munson said.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, was unconvinced about the need to legalize slot machines early in the session. He voted in favor of the bill one day after the Senate approved small changes that helped Allegany County track developer William Rickman.

Hafer said he has been in almost constant touch with Rickman about the issue.

"His satisfaction is dependent upon my vote," Hafer said during a debate last week.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, voted against the measure because of moral concerns about expanded gambling.

"Men and women are spending their money on gambling and the odds are they'll lose. That's what it really comes down to," he said.

The Senate's most liberal Democrats joined Mooney in opposition.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's, called it a tax on the poor that will enrich a few wealthy track owners.

"We're making a pact with the devil and it isn't Lucifer. We're making a pact with a number of greedy men who stand to make lot of money," he said.

During the hour-long debate, Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, said slots will boost the horse racing industry and the horse breeders in addition to bringing much-needed money into the state.

Hogan said the state would keep almost half of the profits, which he said is a good deal compared with nearby states that collect 35 percent.

Some senators who supported the bill said they did so unenthusiastically to help improve the state's dire fiscal situation.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, supported the bill despite the fact her brother destroyed his family because of compulsive gambling, she said.

"If I saw another way out of the financial situation we're in, I'd take it," she said. "It might not be the right thing to do in my heart, but it's the right thing to do for my state."

Lawmakers who represent communities surrounding Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft racetracks were divided on whether the initiative would bring added crime or economic development.

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