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Vote pushes Md. lawmakers to legalize slots

November 08, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Last month in Hagerstown, former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich called the slots referendum a "punt" by a General Assembly that sometimes passes its tough decisions to the public.

On Tuesday, the public voted yes, in effect kicking the issue back to the legislature with a mandate to take action.

Approval of the constitutional amendment pushes the General Assembly to finally approve a slots legalization bill after several years of stalemate, including four years of failed attempts by Ehrlich, a slots advocate.

The amendment, on its own, doesn't make slots legal, but it shifts the focus in Annapolis to the finer details instead of the broader question of whether slots should be allowed.

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"It provides cover for the General Assembly," said Jeanne F. Singer, the chairwoman of the Government Affairs Committee of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, which came out in favor of the amendment.

Singer said the chamber's "lukewarm" endorsement of the referendum reflects the wish that the General Assembly "had a little backbone."

The endorsement says: "The Chamber would have preferred the legislature to decide the question rather than resorting to a cumbersome method that requires an amendment to the state constitution. However, this 'good government' argument does not negate the contribution that legalized slot machines will make to our State's economic health."

The constitutional amendment spells out that Maryland may have no more than 15,000 slot machines in five places.

The only specific location is Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County.

The other locations -- Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore City -- are mentioned with broad references to certain highways.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Gov. Martin O'Malley, a leading supporter of the constitutional amendment, was moving ahead with the logistics of a slots system, such as appointing a commission to grant licenses.

The Maryland Jockey Club has said it will apply for a slots license for the Laurel Park horseracing track in Anne Arundel County, the AP reported.

O'Malley and other top Democrats have said they supported the slots measure to help plug a state budget deficit expected to be about $1 billion for the coming year.

Opponents have cited various reasons for saying no, including a reluctance to change the constitution and philosophical objections to gambling revenue as part of a fiscal policy.

They've also noted that it will take a few years before slots revenue starts coming in.

Many Republicans in Annapolis backed slots under Ehrlich, but came out against the referendum, urging O'Malley to concentrate on cutting state spending instead.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, an amendment supporter, said he expected it to pass. "I knew the urgency out there when it came to cuts in education ...," he said. "I don't see an alternative that would have taken its place."

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, was against the amendment, calling it a "bailout" for past poor decisions.

He said slots and other types of gambling are a tax on the lower class. "I think it preys on people that struggle with (addiction)," he said.

Serafini is new to the House Ways and Means Committee, which is expected to review a slots bill before it goes to the full legislature for a vote.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said the most significant remaining questions about the plan appear to be the locations of the slot machines.

Myers also opposed the referendum, but said he'll make sure the state makes the proper investments as it turns Rocky Gap into a home for slots.

It's uncertain if slot machines in other parts of Maryland will affect Washington County's tip-jar system, which has seen declines in recent years -- most notably an 11 percent drop in revenue from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2008.

Donoghue said he doesn't think people who play tip jars at neighborhood clubs are likely to drive to Rocky Gap or Baltimore to play slots.

The chamber saw a bigger indirect threat through the state's budget problems than any direct link to the county, Singer said.

Myers said another possible side effect as slots become legal is a renewed effort to take control of Washington County's tip-jar system and "spread the wealth" throughout the state instead of distributing it to local nonprofit organizations.

County representatives have resisted past attempts, including a Howard County delegate's bill that would have shifted tip-jar control to the state.

Even with new slots parlors in Maryland, the closest slots action to Hagerstown still will be in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Charles Town Races & Slots expected Maryland to eventually approve slots, said Roger Ramey, the vice president of public affairs.

"It is going to impact us, of course," he said.

He estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the people who go to Charles Town Races & Slots are from Maryland.

Ramey said the business strategy in Charles Town -- regardless of what Maryland does -- is to grow and expand to match the market. That philosophy has led the track's owners to expand from 400 slot machines to start to the current level of about 5,100 and to add a hotel, a parking garage and other amenities.

In 2007, as three West Virginia counties approved table games for their local race tracks, Jefferson County voters soundly rejected the proposal.

Table games supporters, including Charles Town Races & Slots, must wait two years to try again, meaning another vote could be held in 2009.

"Everybody expects that we will (try again)," Ramey said, "but we haven't decided."

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