Senate Votes to Put Slots On Ballot

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By John Wagner and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 9, 2007

The Maryland Senate approved legislation last night calling for a referendum next year on legalizing 15,000 slot machines and moved closer to passing a comprehensive tax package to close an estimated budget shortfall of at least $1.5 billion and raise about $400 million a year for transportation priorities.

A bill to ask voters whether to place slots at five sites in Maryland passed 31 to 15, two votes more the supermajority required for approval. Putting the issue to a public vote was cast as a compromise to an issue that has paralyzed Annapolis for years.

Other procedural votes forced by Republicans suggested that Democratic Senate leaders were likely to win the votes needed today to pass other parts of a revenue package that includes raising the sales, tobacco, corporate income and vehicle titling taxes, as well as overhauling the state's income tax brackets.

The crush of activity on the Senate floor came as legislative leaders sought to bring a special session called by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to a conclusion by next week. The House of Delegates was preparing to work into the weekend to take up parts of the package as they passed the Senate.

The Senate agreed late last night to invest up to $50 million over five years in the financially troubled Prince George's County hospital system if a still-elusive agreement on a long-term solution for the system is reached by state and county leaders or by the General Assembly.

A broader bill on health-care access being considered during the session also moved forward in the Senate yesterday on a 31 to 16 procedural vote. The bill would expand Medicaid eligibility for adults and provide a subsidy to some small businesses to help them offer insurance to their employees.

The breakneck pace drew protests from Republicans and even some Democrats, who said legislation was being muscled through the Senate without vetting by lawmakers and the public.

"What is so special that we have to stay here all night to pass this?" Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) asked his colleagues. "We've done a year's worth of work in a day."

A plan by the Senate to apply the state sales tax to computer services, landscaping operations and video arcades prompted some of the fiercest debate yesterday afternoon.

The proposal to tax the three services, expected to generate about $250 million a year, was added to the revenue package Tuesday by Senate budget writers without public input. They replaced several other services that O'Malley had proposed taxing, including heath clubs and property management services.

An amendment to remove landscaping from the package failed by one vote during afternoon debate after several senators from both parties expressed concerns about its consequences. Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), who proposed the amendment, said she feared the provision would hurt "someone with one lawn mower trying to support a family."

But shortly after 10 p.m., another version of the amendment passed unanimously, eliciting cheers from senators.


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