Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to bring slot machine gambling to Maryland got a boost in the state Senate yesterday, as a budget committee easily moved his bill to the floor for a vote expected early next week.
Before passing the governor's legislation on a vote of 11 to 2, members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee amended it to soften aspects of the proposal most likely to cause trouble in the House of Delegates.
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The Senate bill contains "scores of concessions and compromises," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has led the push to bring slot machines to Maryland.
The chief concession is that the legislation no longer names specific sites where 15,500 slot machines would be permitted, as it had in prior years. Instead, the lawmakers have assigned the duty of selecting locations to a commission of nine members -- five of whom would be appointed by the governor, and four by lawmakers.
While the bill does not say where the venues would be, or who would own the coveted licenses to open a slots parlor, it does limit the machines to four horse tracks and three other locations.
Maryland Budget Secretary Chip DiPaula Jr., one of the governor's chief lobbyists for the slots legislation, said he was encouraged by the vote and is eager to see the measure come before the House, which is scheduled to hold its first hearings Wednesday.
Leading gambling opponents said yesterday that they have seen nothing to suggest that strong resistance in the House has weakened. And they considered the Senate proposal that leaves site selection to a commission a cosmetic change at best.
"They're trying to make it look like no decisions have been made, but it's obvious that that's not the case," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery).
Franchot said that by reserving four licenses for horse tracks, the bill virtually assures that licenses will go to Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks; the family of Peter G. Angelos, who just bought Rosecroft Raceway; and William Rickman, who owns both Ocean Downs and a racetrack site in Allegany County.
While that may be true, Miller said, "we anticipate that at the three off-track sites there will be a bidding war."
Under the bill in its current form, those granted licenses will be required to pay $3 million for every 500 machines covered by their permit. Those upfront fees are expected to bring in $93 million for the fiscal 2007 budget. More than half of the proceeds from slots would go to the state for a special fund for education.
Those receiving licenses also would be required to make millions of dollars in capital investments at their locations and hire workers from the surrounding community.
"It's really a wonderful compromise," said Gerard Evans, a lobbyist for Angelos, who owns the Baltimore Orioles.
A key question is whether the bill will resolve concerns from members of the Prince George's County delegation concerned about the possibility of machines at both Rosecroft and the National Harbor development. Prince George's delegates have in the past voiced strong opposition to the slots proposal and hold five of 22 seats on the Ways and Means Committee, which must approve the bill for it to reach the House floor.
Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D), chairman of the county's 26-member delegation, said yesterday that she and her colleagues want to study the latest proposals before offering their position. "The decision of the delegation will have a big impact on what happens on slots," she said.
After meeting with the Prince George's delegation yesterday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said "it was clearly evident to me that when we had the debate on the referendum, Prince George's County didn't want a facility in its county, and if that has changed, everybody needs to know that."
Evans said he believes the Prince George's delegates will be swayed by the Republican governor's decision to dedicate $150 million in slot machine proceeds to school construction.
"That's a huge infusion of cash for the education system," Evans said.
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.