Members of the Maryland House of Delegates have begun crafting what they said would be a compromise proposal to bring slot machines to the state and help end the draining battle over gambling that has dominated Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tenure.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the bill taking shape is likely to resemble proposals from other years but will not allow slot machines in Prince George's County or at the storied Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore.
Slots foes, from left, Lenore Tabone, Gayl Whitey and Bonnie Bick talk to Aris Melissaratos, economic development secretary, and Chip DiPaula Jr., budget secretary, after the two officials testified in favor of slot machine gambling.
(Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
"At this stage in the game, Prince George's County is off-limits," Busch said. "I said to those delegates, if you don't want them there, they will not go there, period. And I said if the delegates at Pimlico don't want it, we won't put them there."
If a bill to expand gambling reaches the floor of the House in coming days, Busch said, it is not likely to resemble the one that senators are expected to give final approval to today. The Senate legislation would permit 15,500 slot machines at seven venues.
Busch said the House will move quickly to shape its proposal after the Ways and Means Committee concluded a hearing yesterday that lasted five hours in a room so packed that the crowd spilled into the hall.
The administration's case was argued by Chip DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's budget secretary, and four other Cabinet members, who touted the benefits of the bill for education, economic development, the racing industry and agriculture.
DiPaula said that although the bill earmarks $100 million a year in proceeds for school construction, the governor is open to steering $200 million a year or more to that purpose. The Senate bill would boost spending on school construction by $150 million.
DiPaula said he recognized that the Prince George's House delegation spoke "loudly and clearly" this week in expressing opposition to placing slot machines in their county, and he said Ehrlich is flexible when it comes to locating slots parlors. "He's very willing to work with you on locations," DiPaula told the committee.
William Rickman suggested an amendment to allow a facility affiliated with his Ocean Downs track, on the Eastern Shore, to receive a slots license. The governor has raised specific objections to slots at Ocean Downs.
"Any track that does not participate will not survive," said Rickman, a Potomac developer, who also owns land in Dorchester, Frederick and Allegheny counties that could vie for a license under the governor's bill.
Representatives of Magna Entertainment Corp. and the Maryland Jockey Club, which together own Pimlico and Anne Arundel County's Laurel Park, came to the hearing armed with recent poll results showing that voters -- including those in Prince George's -- favor allowing slots at racetracks if proceeds go toward education.
In Prince George's, 61 percent favored such a proposal, according to the poll conducted Feb. 11 to 13 by Penn, Schoen & BerlandAssociates.Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Prince George's) questioned the relevance of the poll. She wanted to know if voters were asked if they want slots "in your back yard." That language was not used. Jonathan Weaver, president of a coalition of 200 Prince George's churches, told the committee: "We believe that there's got to be another way to create jobs in the state of Maryland. . . . What kind of message are we sending to our children that we have to fund school construction through gambling and addiction?"
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said he believes that a slots bill is the best, and perhaps the only, way to secure the money needed to repair hundreds of dilapidated schools.
"I'm the oldest of 10 kids, and if you care about kids . . . you're going to vote for this bill," Miller said.
He said the appeal of the Senate proposal, which won preliminary approval yesterday, is that it avoids questions about where slot machines will go, leaving that to a nine-member commission selected by the governor and top lawmakers.
But slots opponents argued that the Senate approach was a charade, channeling gambling licenses to horse track owners.
Lobbyists with slots clients said yesterday that they are watching the governor's actions closely to gauge his commitment to shepherding a bill to passage this year. One sign of Ehrlich's interest, they said, will be his willingness to support a bill in the House even if he doesn't agree with all its elements. That would at least leave the chance that a bill he likes better would emerge from a conference committee.
The governor's backing for a House bill will be essential, Busch said yesterday. The speaker said he will not put a measure to a vote on the House floor without the governor's commitment that Republicans will come out in large numbers to vote for it.
"He's got to work this bill," Busch said.