Maryland lawmakers swiftly and surprisingly repealed a 22-year-old ban on slot machines today and voted to permit nonprofit groups on the Eastern Shore to operate the devices to raise money for charity.
The repeal, which, if signed by the governor, would apply only to the Eastern Shore, was reported out of a House committee, adopted by the full House and sent back to the Senate for concurrence within 15 hours. The legislative process normally takes at least three days and usually much longer.
The House voted 76 to 36 to approve the bill, which originated in the Senate, and the Senate later adopted the amended measure on a 28-to-19 vote. An amendment was added in the House Judiciary Commitee exempting Worcester County because some lawmakers said they feared the popular seaside resort of Ocean City would be overrun with gambling enterprises.
The bill now goes to Gov. Harry Hughes, who said at a press conference today that he was "not comfortable" with the measure and "did not want to open the door" to the return of the controversial gambling machines. He stopped short of saying he would veto the bill, however, although State Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery) quickly urged him to do so.
"I do call upon the governor to hold a veto hearing," said Denis, who voted against the bill in its final visit to the Senate floor late tonight. "I think it's shocking that a bill to legalize slot machines is before the State Senate. It's deja vu, a return to 1963, when we banned them after the machines rocked the state with scandal, racketeering and prostitution."
If signed by the governor, the bill would permit fraternal, religious or veterans groups on the shore to own and operate up to five machines each. Half of the proceeds would have to go to charity, a point its supporters in the House emphasized in pushing for the bill.
The bill was enacted over the protests of several senators who decried the haste with which it was adopted and called the action a prelude to the spread of the machines statewide. Senate Minority Leader John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel) said many of his colleagues had voted for the bill merely because they thought their counterparts on the House side would kill it.
In the House, the slot machine bill was connected in a vote-trading deal with an unrelated bill intended to regulate gambling. The gambling bill originally died on the House floor but narrowly passed on reconsideration when a handful of Eastern Shore delegates changed their votes in return for favorable action on the slots bill.
Supporters of the slots bill said it makes good sense and would merely legalize current practices on the Eastern Shore, which was stung by two raids on slot machines in recent months.
"What's wrong with the Senate of Maryland ending the hypocrisy regarding gambling in this state?" asked Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County). "I have a child that attends Catholic school. Bingo helps support that school and the last time I looked, bingo is gambling . . . . The lottery is the third largest money maker for the state of Maryland -- $600 million. And I don't hear anybody suggesting we do away with that $600 million and replace it with a tax increase."