For the third straight year, a bill legalizing slot machines in Maryland is headed for the House of Delegates, where it's anyone's guess what will happen next.
On Feb. 11, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee approved a slots bill by an 11-2 vote. The full Senate was expected to approve the bill in the ensuing days, sending it to the House of Delegates. In each of the past two years, a Senate-approved slots bill died in a House committee without ever coming to the floor for a House vote.
The bill calls for 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks and three other locations. A commission of nine members--five appointed by Gov. Robert L. Erhlich Jr. and four appointed by lawmakers--would select the locations. However, it's a foregone conclusion that the four tracks would be Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft Raceway (a harness track near Washington, D.C.) and a track being built in Western Maryland by the Rickman family, which owns Delaware Park.
Leaders of Maryland's racing industry hope a new set of circumstances this year will result in a favorable outcome for slots legislation. When Pennsylvania approved slots last summer, joining Delaware and West Virginia, Maryland became assured of being surrounded by states with slots. The wife of Peter Angelos has agreed to buy Rosecroft Raceway, stabilizing a troubling, uncertain ownership situation; Angelos is a high-powered, politically connected lawyer and majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles. Polls show that a majority of Maryland voters favor legalizing slot machines, especially if proceeds help education. The bill calls for proceeds to fund education and build new schools.
Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the bill that emerged from the Senate committee would provide an estimated $70 million to $80 million for purses and breed funds. Horsemen and breeders have said they need $90 million to remain competitive in the region.
Committee members substantially increased the allotment for horsemen and breeders from the original bill submitted by Ehrlich.
Wright and John Franzone, a Maryland racing commissioner closely monitoring slots developments, said it's not clear what a final bill, if one is ever approved, would mean to racing.
"It's premature to say what the impact would be until we see what the House wants to do," Franzone said. "There's a lot of disagreement on both sides of the legislature."