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Committee works on major overhaul of slots bill

February 19, 2004

ANNAPOLIS - A Senate committee began work Wednesday on a major overhaul of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's slot machine bill that would authorize slot machines at Ocean Downs racetrack and add a third off-track slots emporium in the Interstate 95 corridor.

Under a revised bill presented to the Budget and Taxation Committee, the number of slot machines would remain at 15,500. But the number of machines set aside for the three big racetracks - Laurel Park, Pimlico and Rosecroft - would be reduced from 10,500 to 7,500.

The bill also would revise the way slot machine revenues are distributed that could result in the state retaining more money for public schools.

After spending about three hours listening to an explanation of the proposed changes, the committee scheduled a voting session on the bill today.

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Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he was satisfied overall with the proposed changes to the slots bill, which he characterized as "not vastly different" than last year's proposal.

"This bill, it's been thought out much better than last year's bill," said Munson, who didn't know there was going to be a work session on the slots bill until 10 minutes before it began. "It's been studied to death between this year and last year."

Munson has asked the committee staff to prepare an amendment to the bill to clarify that the state can't tap into Washington County's regulated tip jar gambling operation.

"I don't want the Lottery Commission to be the big sponge sucking up all the profits from gambling," he said.

James "Chip" DiPaula, Ehrlich's budget director, said the governor "is happy with the progress the committee is making in finding a funding source" to help pay for the $1.3 billion Thornton school aid plan.

He said the administration will continue to work with the committee to develop a bill that can win approval of the Senate and House of Delegates.

But he said the governor "is obviously very concerned about any attempt to include slot machines at Ocean Downs."

Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Republican minority leader whose district includes Ocean Downs, also objected to authorizing slot machines at the track near Ocean City.

Most local officials, including Mayor Jim Mathias, are strongly opposed to putting slot machines near the resort.

But Sen. Patrick Hogan, D-Montgomery, said it is only a matter of geographic fairness to include the Eastern Shore because the governor's bill authorized slot machines in central Maryland plus a track that is proposed for Allegany County.

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