About half of Howard County's General Assembly delegation is co-sponsoring a bill that would prohibit legalizing slot machines for at least a year. Two county legislators say they are dead against slots. But other members, seeing slots as a much-needed source of revenue, support Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's plan to put them at four Maryland racetracks.
For weeks, proponents and critics have been waging vigorous campaigns. The varied views among Howard's legislators mimic the statewide discussion over Ehrlich's controversial proposal.
Ehrlich (R) and his supporters have argued that slots would help the state overcome a $1.3 billion deficit, helping to pay for education and to spruce up the tracks. Opponents, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), have said more legalized gambling is a bad way to balance a budget. They fear the machines would bring more noise and traffic to already overburdened neighborhoods near the tracks.
Legislative hearings on the issue began this week in Annapolis even as Ehrlich acknowledged that he had not finished ironing out details of his plan, including the number of slot machines that would be allowed and who would profit from them. That left some legislators stunned that such a major initiative could be so far from complete, halfway through the 90-day legislative session.
Originally, Ehrlich had proposed allowing 10,500 slot machines among four Maryland race tracks. Pimlico in Baltimore, Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington and Laurel Park would each get 3,000 slots. A track under construction in Cumberland would get 1,500. Under initial budget estimates, the racetracks would pay one-time licensing fees to the state totaling $350 million. And the state would get 64 percent of the slots' annual profits.
Erhlich predicted that by 2006 slots would generate $1.3 billion a year and Maryland would take in more than $800,000. Ehrlich is counting on some of that money to help Maryland erase the budget shortfall this year. But now, no one seems exactly sure how much slot machines would generate.
"There is still a lot of negotiation to be done in terms of what the numbers are going to be," said state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard). "It's wide open."
If slots are approved, as he hopes, local communities should get a fair cut of the revenue, Kittleman said, to help offset increased traffic and crime that many think the slots would bring.
During the 2002 campaign, state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader (R-Howard) said she knocked on 4,000 doors "and the overwhelming majority of people said they could deal with legalizing slots. It's not a great option, but people choose to gamble. It's not a tax. . . . And we have to find some way to dig ourselves out of this deficit. And to me this is one of the less painful ways."
Before the state makes that leap, five of Howard's Democratic delegates -- Elizabeth Bobo, James E. Malone Jr., Shane E. Pendergrass, Neil F. Quinter and Frank S. Turner -- think a commission should examine the issue. They support a bill that would put a moratorium on slots until a study is completed by Dec. 31.
"Over the next year, the legislature should consider not only the fiscal impact of gaming but also the impact gaming will have on our human services, crime, families, the restaurant, horse racing and entertainment industries," Turner said. "A review of all these issues will allow the legislature to make an informed decision on the future of gaming in Maryland."
Malone said, "We're not going to jam anything down anybody's throats." But still, with a massive deficit and growing needs in education and transportation, turning down a major revenue source could be difficult, he said.
"We're going to have to do something to generate funds," Malone said.
Quinter and Pendergrass said they wanted voters to decide the issue. "The local community should have a direct say about whether slots go in or not," Quinter said.
Pendergrass has introduced a bill that would grant slots licenses in six geographical regions of the state, provided that the voters of each region approved slots.
"If we are going to do something, we've got to do it right," she said. "We have to include people in the process."
Bobo said it's simply bad public policy to solve the state's budget problems with more legalized gambling.
And Del. Gail H. Bates (R-Howard) said she's against slots on moral and religious grounds.
"It's just not a good thing," she said.