Maryland House Could Vote on Slot Machines

The Maryland House of Delegates has rejected a series of amendments offered by gambling opponents, setting the stage for a final vote Feb. 25 on a bill to legalize 9,500 slot machines at four locations in the state.

While there were no roll call votes that provided a clear indication of whether supporters can muster the 71 votes needed for passage, most of the proposed amendments were rejected Feb. 24 by wide margins on voice votes.

The bill would authorize up to 3,500 slot machines at a location in Anne Arundel County, 2,500 each at sites in Harford and Frederick counties, and 1,000 at Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County. Laurel Park, located in Anne Arundel County, apparently is the only racetrack with a shot to get slots under the bill, though slots revenue would be earmarked for the racing industry.

Based on expected gross revenues of about $1 billion a year, about $350 million a year would go to public schools, mostly for school construction. Local governments would get about $150 million, and owners of slots facilities would get about $300 million. The bill also would provide up to $100 million a year to boost purses for at Maryland racetracks, and up to $40 million a year would go into a fund to help improve facilities at racetracks.

The House bill is dramatically different from a Senate version, which would authorize up to 15,500 machines at four racetracks and three off-track betting parlors.

"This is not a perfect bill. It's not as good as the Senate bill," said Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who has made legalization of slot machines one of the top priorities of his administration. But he said the movement in the House "is a very positive development."

If the bill passes the House, the governor said he and Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller would try to move the House closer to his position as he and legislative leaders work to reach a compromise on some of their differences.

House Speaker Michael Busch, who had been criticized by slots supporters the last two years for not bringing a bill out of committee so all 141 delegates could vote on it, said after two years when slots dominated the annual 90-day sessions, most members of the House wanted to vote on it this year to try to put it behind them.