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Senate sends slots bill to House committee

February 17, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Opponents packed the corridor, supporters rehearsed their arguments and House Ways and Means Committee members complained of deja vu all over again during a hearing Wednesday on Gov. Robert Ehrlich's third bid to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland.

The hearing came hours after the Senate considered proposed amendments to its version of the bill. Most were offered by slots opponents who wanted to prohibit slots parlors in their districts, and those were rejected. Some minor revisions were approved - mainly to limit money for treatment of gambling addiction to state residents and to make the licensee at Pimlico Race Course responsible for roadway improvements there - but the Senate has not yet taken a final vote. That could come today or Friday.

The House hearing lasted for hours, prompting Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, to compare the proceeding to the film "Groundhog Day."

"It's like the same bad dream over and over," said Myers, a slots opponent who serves on the Ways and Means Committee. "And it's becoming just as confusing as it ever was."

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Proponents argued that approving slots would aid education, create jobs and save the horse-racing industry. The bill ties most slots parlors to racetracks.

Several of Ehrlich's cabinet members and State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick testified in favor of the bill, as did representatives of the horse-racing industry - including William Rickman, who wants to build a racetrack in Little Orleans, in Allegany County.

Myers said he remains opposed to slots, particularly in Allegany County.

"My position is no slots in District 1C where I was elected," he said, and specifically not in Little Orleans.

Myers said his Little Orleans constituents don't want slots - or the track - and noted that five had come to the Ways and Means hearing Wednesday to oppose the slots bill.

Fellow committee member Robert A. McKee listened to both sides and not only remained supportive of slots, but was optimistic that the bill would survive the House committee this year.

"I'm hopeful," the Washington County Republican said. "It's encouraging to have actually had a bill hearing this early in the session."

In previous years, similar bills have died in Ways and Means. Last year, the bill was delayed until the waning hours of the General Assembly session and failed in committee.

While he said he understands opponents' concerns that slots could lead to problem gambling for some people, he noted the bill's provision for treating gambling addictions and that the state already provides gambling opportunities through the lottery.

Myers wasn't sure how other committee members would vote on the bill. "Your guess is as good as mine as far as where the votes will go," he said.

Myers said the vote might hinge on how much of the gambling revenue would go to Prince George's and Montgomery counties and to the City of Baltimore.

"It could come down to, 'What is it worth to you, Governor?'" he said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said late Wednesday that the bill's survival in committee could depend on whether specific locations for slots parlors are included. He said Ehrlich doesn't want them in Timonium, the Prince George's County Delegation doesn't want them there and some from the Baltimore area don't want them at Pimlico.

Nevertheless, he said, "if there are 12 votes for it in committee, it'll go to the floor" for a full House vote.

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