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House plans to vote on slots today

February 25, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - The House of Delegates plans to vote today on a bill legalizing slot machine gambling in Maryland, the bill having survived a floor debate Thursday night without undergoing further amendments.

The House Ways and Means Committee had made more than 30 amendments to the bill before sending it to the full House. One of them, offered by Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, provided that up to 1,000 machines could be placed at Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort near Cumberland in Allegany County.

The Associated Press reported that based on expected gross revenues of about $1 billion a year, about $350 million a year would go to public schools, most of that for school construction. Local governments would get about $150 million, and owners of slots facilities would get about $300 million. The bill also would provide up to $100 million a year to boost purses for winning horses at Maryland racetracks, and up to $40 million a year would go into a fund to help improve facilities at racetracks.

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The Senate already has passed a slots bill, but it is vastly different from the bill to be considered in the House today. While the Senate bill provides for slots at four Maryland racetracks and at a handful of other sites, the House bill would limit slot locations to Rocky Gap, Frederick County, Harford County and the Laurel Park racetrack.

The Senate bill also provides for more machines - up to 15,500 in seven locations - while the House bill allows up to 9,500 at four locations.

Several amendments were offered, but Ways and Means Committee members successfully fended off all of them during more than 90 minutes of debate.

One of the most contentious was over whether the bill should include a prohibition against political candidates accepting campaign money from organized gambling interests. Offered by Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, the amendment drew a 66-66 tie vote. Since it did not receive a majority vote, House Speaker Michael E. Busch ruled that the amendment failed.

Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis, D-Baltimore City, said the Ways and Means Committee would address that issue in a separate bill later in the legislative session.

Minutes later, supporters of the amendment sought to have it reconsidered. This time, Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, repeated that the issue would be treated in a separate bill, and said he didn't want it "thrown into this bill. We have some serious campaign finance bills coming up."

Ultimately, the body voted not to reconsider it.

"Quite frankly, I expected some more shenanigans," Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said. Though there was "some of the kind of confusion you get with these floor debates," Shank said he expected "a lot more turmoil."

While this bill is not the one offered by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who's been pushing to legalize slot machine gambling since campaigning for his office in 2002, he advised Republican Caucus members to support the bill during a dinner at the governor's mansion Wednesday night. The hope, according to caucus members, is that if the House approves the bill, a conference committee with Senate members will be able to negotiate a final piece of legislation that more closely resembles what the governor wants.

The bill will have more than Republican support today.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he will vote for it.

"We come down here every year," he said. "If there are problems, we have every opportunity to fix them."

"It's by no means a perfect bill," Shank added, "but what we needed to accomplish tonight was to keep the ball in the air."

If the bill passes and goes to a conference committee, "everything will be up for negotiation," he said.

"I think tomorrow will be a very close vote," Shank said, adding that a considerable majority of House Republicans would support it.

He also predicted the issue would be decided within three votes - either way.

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