Changes could kill slots bill

March 18, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS -The Maryland Senate took a gamble on a slot machine bill this week, but may have missed the jackpot this year by making changes that could kill the bill in the House.

For the first time, the House of Delegates this year passed a bill to legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland. It would have allowed a total of 9,500 machines in four specific locations - including Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort near Cumberland in Allegany County, and a to-be-determined location in Frederick County.

But when the bill was sent to the Senate, it triggered so many amendments that any resemblance it had to the bill that won approval in the House was purely coincidental.


By the time senators were finished, the bill looked just like another slots bill they had already passed, which was left to languish in the House Ways and Means Committee. That bill would allow 15,500 total machines to be distributed among locations that would be determined by a commission.

Only one legislator, Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, spoke against the bill before the full Senate voted on it Thursday morning.

Pinsky reminded the Senate that the legalization of slots in West Virginia was frequently "looked to as justification" for legalizing slots in Maryland, because so many Marylanders were playing slots in the Mountain State.

He told them that because of fears that Maryland would legalize slots, West Virginia lawmakers were now considering table gaming in order to remain competitive.

The Senate narrowly approved the bill, by a vote of 25-22.

But because of the changes, a conference committee of members from both the House and the Senate would have to work out a compromise, and the House would have to vote again.

Within hours of the vote, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, long seen as the primary obstacle to legalizing slots, was all but writing its obituary.

"I think the Senate missed a great opportunity if they really wanted to pass a slots bill," Busch said, echoing statements he made when the House originally approved the bill Feb. 25.

"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 then.

On Thursday, he said that in the four weeks left in the General Assembly session, there were a lot of other issues - such as the state budget and reform of medical malpractice laws - that were more important.

Since the day the House approved the slots bill, Busch has been resistant to any consideration of a conference committee to keep the bill alive if the Senate made changes.

For that reason, Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, predicted the issue was dead this year.

"I think Busch is as good as his promise not to let it go to conference," Munson said.

On the House side, Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, said he thought the Senate amendments had sealed the bill's fate.

But Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, wasn't quite ready to close the coffin lid. "I don't think it's dead yet," he said.

Gov. Robert E. Ehrlich has been touting slots since his 2002 campaign as a fresh source of revenue for state projects. This year he specifically tied his efforts to school construction, promising $150 million in new money per year for school projects if slots were approved.

Because next year is an election year, few believe there will be any significant attempt to revisit the issue then.

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