Pennsylvania's legislature passed a bill this weekend that could launch 61,000 slot machines at more than a dozen sites, prompting predictions from the Maryland governor's office that the Free State will lose more money as residents go elsewhere to gamble.
"Maryland will mourn the loss of dollars as the state will now be surrounded by states that have passed the slots," said Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who has pushed hard for the gambling machines in his state.
Despite the vote, there was little consensus on whether Maryland would convene a special legislative session to tackle the issue of slot machines in the state.
The vote by the Pennsylvania House of Delegates in Harrisburg early yesterday approved a slots measure that the state's Senate had already adopted. The action, which will legalize slots to fund property tax reductions for homeowners amounting to $1 billion a year, is expected to be signed by Pennsylvania's governor today.
West Virginia and Delaware offer slot machine gambling, and the measures in Pennsylvania are expected to encourage proponents who seek to have the same in Maryland.
Because of the vote in Pennsylvania, "it becomes imperative that we move forward immediately" on the issue, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said yesterday. Miller has been pushing for a special summer session to legalize slot machines.
Maryland forgoes about $400 million a year in revenue to slots in West Virginia and Delaware, and will lose more to Pennsylvania, Miller said. "We have a deficit that could have been and should have been addressed by the slot machine issue for the past two years," he said.
But opponents have said the financial impact of slot machines just outside Maryland is overstated.
W. Minor Carter, who has lobbied against slots in Maryland, predicted little economic impact for the state, saying Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware will fight over a shrinking pool of money. "You are going to have this race to the bottom," Carter said yesterday.
The vote in Pennsylvania, he said, is unlikely to change the political climate in Maryland on the issue. "I don't see anyone saying, 'Now that they have slots in Pennsylvania, I want them in my neighborhood,' " he said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has said that gambling machines in Pennsylvania could give an example of the risk of using gaming proceeds to achieve a balanced budget. Twice, Busch has led efforts to quash slots measures; he favors putting the matter to voters. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Speaking for Ehrlich, DeLeaver said, "The inaction of the Maryland legislature will hurt Maryland in its pockets. . . . For far too long, Maryland has funded the social service and education programs of surrounding states, and Pennsylvania will be added to that list."
Ehrlich and Miller favor legalizing slots to improve education and subsidize the state's racing industry but have not been able to overcome opposition.
Asked about the possibility of a special session, DeLeaver said, "We are at a stalemate at this point." She said the governor's focus is on medical malpractice issues, and such a session would require new discussions among Miller, Busch and Ehrlich.
In Pennsylvania, proponents say the new gambling program would be used to cut and subsidize borrowing for public projects. Opponents say they are concerned about negative secondary social effects of gambling.
Under the bill, slots would be approved for seven racetracks, two resorts and five stand-alone locations.
The late-night, down-to-the wire session was the culmination of months of bargaining. The drive to legalize slots in Pennsylvania got new impetus from the 2002 election campaign of Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D). Rendell proposed that the machines could be used to cut property taxes. The slots vote was tied to approval of the budget.
After Pennsylvania's Senate passed the slots measure Friday, Rendell said in a statement that the action "sets the stage for a historic reduction in local property taxes."
When the bill becomes law, Pennsylvania will become the 18th state to legalize slot machine gambling, excluding casinos operated by American Indian tribes, the American Gaming Association said.
Staff writer Martin Weil and the Associated Press contributed to this report.