When 30 activists descended on the Anne Arundel County Council chamber Monday night wearing anti-slots lapel stickers, their message was familiar: Slot machines would bring bankruptcy, crime and misery to Maryland.
But the setting for this pitch had changed. After spending three years trying to derail Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature legislation in the General Assembly, gambling foes are now targeting local authorities whose zoning powers could prove a stubborn final obstacle to any bill that emerges from the State House.
Recent passage in the House of Delegates of a bill legalizing slot machines has opened the door, if only slightly, to a gambling expansion in Maryland. The bill, more restrained than one passed by the Senate, would permit 9,500 machines in four counties: Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford.
"Once Anne Arundel was picked as one of the four locations, it was no longer just a state issue," said Pete Robinson, a county resident who has been studying local zoning laws for NoCasiNo, a grass-roots anti-gambling group. "The local level is going to be the next battleground."
The potency of local zoning laws, it turns out, is considerable, because neither the House nor Senate legislation includes a provision that would allow a slots vendor to bypass those laws. Anti-gambling lobbyist Minor Carter said the only location where slots would be permitted without a special zoning change is the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said his efforts to pass slots have intentionally ignored local zoning questions. "It's always been anticipated that local government would have some say," Miller said.
But the Senate's bill, Miller added, would send 5 percent of the slots revenue to the jurisdictions where the machines would be located, a sweetener that he presumed would help sway local officials.
So far, the allure of new revenue has not proved persuasive in at least two counties. John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr. (R), president of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners, has begun studying a measure that would change zoning laws to prohibit slots across the county. He said yesterday that gambling would create social ills without solving the state's long-term fiscal problems.
"It is the moneyed interests coming in out of the county," Thompson said. "It's going to make people rich. And the government's just going to waste the money on some program or other."
In Anne Arundel, slots opponents are in the minority on the County Council. But Del. David G. Boschert (R), a former county zoning official, said current local laws would not permit the machines at Laurel Park, the horse track that is the most likely venue under the House plan.
Council member Barbara Samorajczyk (D) said yesterday that she has sought a legal opinion from county attorneys to clarify the zoning question and expects a fierce battle over any proposal to adjust the law to allow slots.
"I think there are a lot of people in the county who feel, like I do, that it's not the right way for us to be funding education," she said.
The potential for local zoning battles over slot machines highlights one of the most vexing problems facing Ehrlich (R) and other advocates for gambling. Numerous polls have shown a majority of Maryland residents support Ehrlich's initiative, at least until a slots venue is placed in their county.
"It's the classic NIMBY issue," Boschert said of people who support something except when it hits close to home. "No different than a rubble landfill or a garbage dump."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the only way he was able to cobble together a majority of delegates to support the measure was to guarantee members from two of the state's largest jurisdictions -- Prince George's County and Baltimore -- that no slots would go there.
After the bill passed last month, Frederick's county commissioners released a statement opposing the legalization of slots anywhere in Maryland, but particularly in Frederick County, where there are no other gambling ventures.
Thompson said a work session has been scheduled March 24 to explore drawing up an ordinance that would prohibit use of any building or land for slots in the county and all 12 of its municipalities, including the city of Frederick.
Michael L. Cady (R), vice president of the board, said he supports such a measure. "When Commissioner Thompson is prepared to put the proposal on the table, I will gladly accept the gavel and second it -- which means yes," Cady said.
Although there is strong backing for slots in Allegany County, Harford County Council member Richard C. Slutzky (R) said some residents in Harford, in the fast-developing corridor along Interstate 95, fear extra traffic and other problems.
On the whole, Slutzky said, the Republican county probably tilts toward supporting slots because the GOP governor does. "I think it's a mixed bag," he said. "The majority might feel they'd be on board with Governor Ehrlich."
So far, he has not heard opponents talking about using local zoning or other laws to block the measure, but that probably would change if slots became a reality, he said.