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House approves slots bill

February 26, 2005|BY TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

The vote was close, but after lengthy and spirited debate - and some heavy-duty politicking - the House of Delegates on Friday approved legislation to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland.

Slots proponents won that battle by a vote of 71-66, but the war is far from over.

The Senate passed a slots bill last week by a 26-21 vote, but there are major differences between the House and Senate bills, and now a conference committee of delegates and senators may try to hammer out a compromise both bodies will accept. Ultimately, the effort still could fail.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who pushed for slots in his 2002 campaign - and has been pushing ever since - had directed House Republicans to support the bill, even though it was not the slots bill he had offered. After the vote, Ehrlich said he was pleased with the outcome, although "we have some concerns," he said. "This is not my bill."

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Ehrlich said that through the conference committee, "I believe we can make this bill an even better bill."

Both bills would devote millions from anticipated slots revenue to school construction. The so-called "slots-for-tots" policy initially was designed by the Ehrlich administration to make slots legalization more palatable to opponents.

The atmosphere was tense in the House as delegates assembled for the vote.

"I haven't heard from the governor for 2 1/2 years," said Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard, as he headed for his seat. "Today, he called me."

Not that it helped - Turner voted against the bill.

Opponents argued that legalizing slots would lead to a number of social ills. Voting for the bill would "sell Maryland's soul for the cheap, corrosive and fleeting lure of slots," said Del. Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery.

Franchot said the "organized gambling lobby" would continue to push for expansion of gambling.

"Full-fledged casinos and neon lights are around the corner," he said.

Del. Emmett Burns Jr., D-Baltimore County, compared slots to serpents, saying there's no way to know what the impact will be.

"This is a live snake," Burns said. "You cannot measure a live snake. A snake wiggles it wiggles its way into our homes, our hearts and our bank accounts. The only way you can measure a live snake is to kill it and stretch it out."

Del. Gareth Murray, D-Montgomery, warned that the legislators were about to "take the most addictive form of gambling and put it in areas where people have addictions. Does that make sense?"

But supporters said Marylanders were gambling anyway - only in other states.

As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, noted that he and his colleagues had been researching slot machine gambling for years, visiting sites in other states where such gambling exists. At every site, he said, he saw Maryland license plates on the cars in the parking lots.

Slots supporters understood that there were consequences, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, but he said "the world has not, in fact, come crashing down in West Virginia," where slots are legal. Instead, he said, money for education has been made available and jobs had been created.

Tension mounted as House Speaker Michael E. Busch, long considered an obstacle to the slots legislation, called for the final vote after the score had hovered at 64-63 as a few delegates waited until the last minute to cast their votes.

Afterward, Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he was relieved the House finally had had a chance to vote. While the Senate had passed a bill last year, House bills had died in committee for the past two years.

"This has consumed three years of our energy," Donoghue said. "It's time to put this issue behind us and move on to other issues." For the sake of needed school construction in Washington County, he said he hopes the House and Senate will reach a final agreement.

Only one local delegate - Del. LeRoy Myers, R-Washington/Allegany - voted against the bill.

"I'm very disappointed," he said. "If I get another chance to vote, I will vote against it again."

He also predicted that "when we get a finished product on the floor, if we do get a finished product, we will not see so many votes in the affirmative."

Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, had a prediction of his own.

"Now, we'll see what happens," Weldon said. "If the speaker of the House is intractable and the president of the Senate is intractable, this has been an exercise in futility and a lot of good debate, and nothing more."

Busch seemed to echo that sentiment when asked about what compromises might have to be made in the conference committee.

"With the closeness of this vote, obviously the governor and the president of the Senate are either gonna have to accept this bill or I don't believe there'll be any expansion of gambling in the state of Maryland," he said.

Later, Busch said he didn't even see a need for a conference committee since the House bill already had made concessions to Ehrlich on the locations of slots parlors.

"What are his concerns?" Busch said. "Please tell me what's wrong with this bill."

For his part, Myers predicted the slots issue would die in a conference committee.

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