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House committee kills slots bill

April 03, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

A House of Delegates panel voted down a slot machine bill Wednesday, making it unlikely the gambling devices will be legalized at Maryland racetracks this year.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 16-to-5 to kill the bill passed by the Senate on March 22.

Of two local lawmakers on the committee, Del. Robert A. McKee supported the slots bill and Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. voted against it.

Myers, R-Allegany/Washington, said he opposes gambling on the principal that it compounds social problems such as divorce and crime.

McKee, R-Washington, said slot revenues would provide a large chunk of the money needed to meet the education funding goals of the Thornton Commission, which called for an extra $23.1 million for Washington County Public Schools over six years.

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The Maryland General Assembly approved the Thornton plan last year without a way to pay for it over the long term, he said. A cigarette tax increase only covered the first 18 months of the proposed increases.

Loss of the slots bill will complicate efforts by a conference committee to balance the fiscal 2004 budget by the end of session, which is scheduled for Monday, said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

"I think we need to be prepared to stay here until hell freezes over. It's going to be a showdown now," Munson said.

The conference committee will have to cut the $15 million that slots were expected to bring in during the coming fiscal year. In later years, there will be even wider budget deficits without slots.

Slots supporters left open the possibility that the issue was not dead for this session, which is scheduled to end Monday.

"This bill is like a cat. It's got nine lives. We're only on number five," said Del. James E. Rzepkowski, R-Anne Arundel.

For the bill to pass would require a compromise between slots supporter Gov. Robert Ehrlich and slots foe House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

So far, the two men have held fast to their positions.

James "Chip" DiPaula, Ehrlich's budget secretary, said after the vote the administration would like to see the bill revived in the final days of the legislative session, but "I will tell you I don't hold out much hope."

"Today, one committee stood in the way of $700 million for school kids," said DiPaula.

Busch said the legislation is not properly thought out and should be studied for another year.

"The idea of rushing something of this magnitude through as hastily as it was put together just does not make sense," Busch said.

Ehrlich has said he's not willing to spend any more political capital on the bill if it doesn't pass this year.

The Senate bill called for a total of 10,500 slot machines at Rosecroft, Pimlico and Laurel.

A proposed track in Allegany County, just west of Washington County, would have been eligible to have 1,000 machines once it is built.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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