Maryland Senate OKs Slots, But Battle Remains

The Maryland Senate, on a 25-21 vote March 22, authorized 11,500 slot machines at Maryland racetracks. The legislation, however, faces strong opposition in the House of Delegates, where the House speaker has vowed to kill it.

The outcome is anyone's guess. Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., who won election in November on a pro-slots platform, has pledged to lobby vigorously for passage in the House.

"To make a very appropriate analogy, we're reached the Sweet 16," Ehrlich said in reference to the University of Maryland's bid in the NCAA basketball tournament. "We still have a ways to go to win the national championship."

Ehrlich had proposed that 46% of slots proceeds go to racetrack owners and 44% to public education. The Senate altered the split to 46% for education and 39% for track owners. Local government, the state lottery commission, and horsemen would each get 5%.

The governor initially said the issue of expanded gaming was about the horse racing industry, but hardly anyone in the Senate or House has uttered a word publicly about racing unless it is to say track owners don't deserve even 39% of the proceeds.

The impetus for legalizing slots in Maryland is a $2-billion state budget shortfall. Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, and Rosecroft Raceway would each get 3,500 machines. A track under construction in western Maryland would be allotted 1,000 machines.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch has vowed to bury the slots bill in committee. He cited the narrow 25-21 vote in the Senate, despite aggressive arm-twisting for slots by Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller Jr., as evidence doubts persist about the long-term viability of slot machines.

On March 17, members of the racing industry turned out in force for a pro-slots rally in Annapolis, where horses pranced in front of the State House and horse vans drove through town.