The Maryland Senate put the legalization of slot machines on its fast track yesterday, with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) predicting that his chamber would pass a gambling bill within a week.
From there, the legislation faces an uncertain fate in the House of Delegates, where the issue has died each of the past two years.
Sen. Ulysses Currie (D) gestures for the next speaker during testimony on the slots bill.
(Chris Gardner -- AP)
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) appeared by Miller's side at a Senate hearing and argued that his administration's slots legislation would shore up the state's horse racing industry and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for public school construction and other educational needs.
"Think about the dollars we would have available if we had passed this [slots] bill two years ago," Ehrlich said. "This is the year to do it."
Representatives of Stop Slots Maryland, a coalition opposed to the bill, announced that they would not participate in what they termed "so-called hearings" in the Senate, and instead would focus their lobbying efforts on the House.
"Our hope is that our absence will call attention to the obvious fact: The Senate is not considering the slots issue in a responsible or deliberative fashion and is failing the people of Maryland," said Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of the group.
Unlike past years, the group was represented at the hearing only by its lobbyist, keeping at bay hundreds of neighborhood activists, religious leaders and others who have come to Annapolis in past years to argue that legalizing slots would increase gambling addictions and other social ills.
Ehrlich's bill would put 15,500 video lottery terminals at six locations across the state, including 3,500 each at two horse racing tracks in Prince George's County, and at the Pimlico track in Baltimore. The governor wants to place 1,000 machines at a track in Allegany County, and 4,000 others could go to two additional sites.
Legislative analysts predict that the machines would generate more than $1.5 billion a year by 2009, with about half that amount -- $735 million -- flowing to the state.
The slot machine venues would get $605 million, while about $70 million would go to enhance horse racing purses and to aid the horse breeding industry. An additional $75 million would go to local governments in areas where the machines are located, and $68 million would be used for administrative costs.
The bill also establishes a $6 million "compulsive gambling fund" that would be used to set up a 24-hour hotline and provide counseling and other services.
While Prince George's religious leaders have been among the most vocal opponents of the bill, several Baltimore ministers from the neighborhood surrounding Pimlico spoke in favor of the legislation yesterday. They said that the slots venues would create jobs, an argument that was echoed by several workers at existing tracks.
Ehrlich's bill would leave it to a commission to select the two non-track sites from six eligible jurisdictions: Prince George's, Howard, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties, and the city of Baltimore.
Angling for other slots venues was evident at yesterday's hearing. Racetrack owner William Rickman asked members of the Budget and Tax Committee to consider amending the bill to include 1,000 machines at a facility affiliated with Ocean Downs, a track in Berlin, Md.
Miller said his presence at the hearing with Ehrlich yesterday indicated that slots "is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It's a people issue."
If the bill clears the Senate next week, as Miller predicted, House debate is expected to be far more contentious. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has promised to give the bill a full hearing and has not ruled out letting it come to the floor for a vote. An initial hearing is set in the House on Wednesday.
"When it comes over to the House, there will be a huge outburst and firestorm of opposition," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who happened to be walking past the Stop Slots news conference yesterday morning and decided to join it.