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Bill would include slots at Rocky Gap, Frederick Co.

February 24, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - The House Ways and Means Committee voted Wednesday to move a bill to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland to the full House of Delegates for a vote.

The bill differs quite a bit from the one approved last week by the Senate, and, because of an amendment by Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, includes a provision for up to 1,000 slot machines at the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort near Cumberland in Allegany County.

The House could vote as early as Friday on the bill.

It's the first time in three years that a bill to legalize slots has not died in the Ways and Means Committee, and McKee, a slots proponent, was relieved that the committee had finally moved a bill forward.

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"It's quite a different day," McKee said after the vote. "Minute to minute, hour to hour, we didn't know what would happen."

McKee is one of two Washington County legislators on the committee. The other is LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, who has opposed slots from the start. He voted against both the bill and McKee's amendment.

The final committee vote was 13 to move the bill and five opposed. Three legislators declined to vote. Committee Chairman Sheila Hixson did not officially vote, but later said she supported the bill.

Now, McKee said, "we'll have the debate on the floor and hopefully get it passed."

Getting the bill out of committee was no simple matter. Maneuvering and deal-making continued until moments before the vote. McKee was recruited to make the amendment to include Rocky Gap in the bill, after Del. Bennett Bozman, D-Worcester, offered an amendment to remove a provision in the original bill to put slots in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore.

The bill also provides for up to 2,500 slot machines in Frederick County, 2,500 in Harford County and 3,500 at the Laurel Park racetrack.

The committee considered more than 25 amendments to the bill, many of which were technical changes.

"I'm very frustrated with the complicated and convoluted process we go through down here," he said during a break in the debate. "I hope once and for all we get this element of slots behind us."

Myers opposed slots during his campaign in 2002 and won a close race against former House Speaker Casper Taylor, D-Allegany. Taylor was responsible for the state's development of Rocky Gap resort, which has been bleeding cash to the tune of about $1 million per year.

Rocky Gap is in the district represented by Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, who said Wednesday night that he was delighted the resort was included in the bill.

"I'm a strong proponent of slots; I campaigned on slots," Kelly said, although he said he would have preferred to see slots at a proposed racetrack in Little Orleans.

He did issue a caveat, though. "It should not be in the lodge, but in a separate building so that it doesn't impact on a family" visiting the resort, he said.

Both Kelly and McKee said putting slots at Rocky Gap should improve its financial situation. Kelly said the state wants to sell the resort, and putting slots there would make it easier to find a buyer. He said he hoped that as host county, Allegany County would reap some financial rewards from anticipated slots revenue. "Hopefully we would get an economic return of some fashion," he said.

The next step for slots supporters is to get the bill passed by the full House, where House Speaker Michael E. Busch has been seen as an impediment for the past two years. The Republican Caucus planned to meet with Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the state's leading slots proponent, Wednesday night to plan strategy.

Or, as House Minority Leader George Edwards put it, "we want to find out what the Speaker's strategy is."

The House bill and the Senate bill are completely different, he observed.

For one thing, the Senate approved a bill that originated with Ehrlich.

The House bill is not the one Ehrlich wanted, but a rival bill crafted by House Democrats.

Should the House pass the bill, it will go to a conference committee, where legislators from both houses will try to iron out differences - or they could kill the issue altogether.

On Wednesday morning, McKee told members of the Greater Hagerstown Committee that the legislation was "a bad bill it's our hope the conferees can do some good magic."

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