By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) put forward legislation last night that would allow voters to decide in a referendum whether Maryland should legalize slot machine gambling at five racetrack and non-track locations, a compromise that legislative leaders said could finally resolve an issue that has divided the state for years.
Under O'Malley's plan, to be debated in a special legislative session starting Monday, the state would authorize up to 15,000 machines -- far more than the governor had previously agreed to support -- if voters approve a measure appearing on the 2008 presidential ballot.
Under the proposal, a state commission would award licenses to operate slots parlors in the city of Baltimore and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties. Two existing tracks -- Laurel Park in Anne Arundel and Ocean Downs in Worcester -- would be eligible for, but not guaranteed, licenses. Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore would not be eligible. Other locations were chosen because they are tourism destinations or could deter Marylanders from traveling to neighboring states to play slots.
"All in all, I think it will help bring a resolution to this," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the legislature's most powerful slots opponent. "We're on the course, I think, to come up with the necessary votes to put this to the public. . . . Even those who oppose slots can support giving their constituents a chance to vote on it."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a major slots proponent, has voiced strong opposition to a referendum in recent days, suggesting that the General Assembly should decide the issue.
But the chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over slots legislation said last night that Senate leaders were heartened by the number of machines included in the bill and predicted that a referendum would pass in the chamber.
"I think the Senate will live with a referendum," said Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "You probably get greater support than with a straight slots bill."
O'Malley's slots bill was the most highly anticipated piece of legislation unveiled yesterday for consideration in the special session called to address a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall. He is also asking lawmakers to pass health-care legislation and increase funding for transportation priorities.
Under O'Malley's plan, the state-owned slot machines would generate about $700 million a year for the state when fully phased in, aides said. An additional $100 million yearly would supplement horse racing purses, a practice in neighboring states.
Passage of a slots referendum bill is expected to spark a year-long public campaign pitting well-financed gambling interests against religious groups and grass-roots organizations opposed to slots, which they argue increase social ills such as crime and gambling addiction.
Recent polling suggests a referendum stands a good chance of passage. About seven in 10 Marylanders favored legalizing slot machine gambling, according to a Washington Post poll published this week.
But several statewide gambling initiatives have failed elsewhere across the country in recent years.
"Every one of these locations has a population surrounding it -- churches, schools, neighborhoods," said Aaron Meisner, chairman of StopSlotsMaryland. "These people are not going to stand by and be victimized by this industry."
"I think it's time to let the people decide," O'Malley said last night.
Busch declined to say whether he would work to defeat a public referendum or to predict the chances for its passage. Miller was attending a family event and unavailable for comment, aides said.
O'Malley's announcement yesterday marked the latest movement in his position on slots. As a candidate last year, he advocated placing a "limited" number of machines only at tracks to prop up Maryland's horse-racing industry.
Last month, he announced that he would introduce legislation "very similar" to a failed 2005 plan that sought to legalize 9,500 machines at racetracks and other locations in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties.
As he struggled to secure broad support for that plan this month, O'Malley began exploring the possibility of a referendum. He agreed to boost the number of machines in the legislation to accommodate Miller, who has pushed bills in the past calling for as many as 15,500 machines.
Inclusion of a Baltimore location is a new development. There had been debate in the past about whether to place slots at Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes. But that venue would not be eligible under the legislation unveiled yesterday.
In a letter to O'Malley yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) said she is interested in the possibility of a slots facility outside of downtown but accessible to the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards.