House Republican caucus pushes for a vote on slots

Almost a decade ago, they united against slots, a 41-member caucus vowing to oppose gambling legislation in the Maryland General Assembly.

But yesterday, the Republicans of the House of Delegates showed what a difference a governor can make.

The GOP caucus - now 43 members strong - called on House Speaker Michael E. Busch to let slots come to a vote before the full chamber, saying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan for expanded gambling is the only responsible solution offered to resolve Maryland's revenue shortfall.

"The House of Delegates has not had a hearing and has not offered a credible plan," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, the minority whip. "It's time to put aside the rhetoric and focus on the future of Maryland."

O'Donnell - whose job as whip includes counting votes -pledged that "a clear majority" of House Republicans will back slots, even though many acknowledge they're uncomfortable supporting expanded gambling. Many GOP delegates have signed no-gambling pledges in previous campaigns.

"There are some of us who did oppose slots in the past," said Del. Richard A. Sossi, who represents the upper Eastern Shore. "We generally don't like to see government funded by gambling. ... The problem is, the money has been spent [for education], and now we have to pay for it. For most of us, it's more palatable than a tax increase."

Later yesterday, a GOP delegate who didn't participate in the caucus news conference joined liberal Democrats to push a bill that would ban campaign contributions from gambling interests.

Del. Herbert H. McMillan of Anne Arundel County said he isn't sure how he'll vote on a bill to legalize slots. But if one passes, he said, "we need to be prepared to address some of the things that have manifested themselves in the past."

The measure, sponsored by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, would prohibit people or companies seeking slots-operation licenses from donating to Maryland political campaigns. Anyone holding licenses would have them suspended if they made later contributions.

"A goldfish is a fish, and a shark is a fish. You should not treat goldfish and sharks the same," Simmons told the House Ways and Means Committee. "Organized gambling is the shark in the Maryland waters."

A study of campaign finance reports by Common Cause/Maryland found that individuals and groups with gambling ties have donated at least $700,000 to state politicians in the past five years.

Two other states with legalized gambling - New Jersey and Louisiana - have passed measures banning gambling-related contributions that have been upheld by appellate courts.

A similar proposal by Simmons last year did not get out of the House Ways and Means Committee. The chairwoman, Del. Sheila E. Hixson, has indicated she believes a ban on gambling contributions isn't necessary and unfairly targets one special interest.

Her committee was the focus of yesterday's caucus news conference, where GOP leaders called on Hixson and Busch to move more quickly in considering the governor's slots proposal.

"As of this day, the speaker has done nothing," said Del. George C. Edwards of Western Maryland, the House minority leader. "It's time to let the House have a vote on this issue."

The Senate measure would permit 15,500 slot machines at six locations, which legislative analysts project would eventually raise more than $800 million a year for public schools.

House hearings on most slots bills are set for Tuesday. The governor's proposal - his original bill and the measure amended by the Senate - are to be heard March 30.

Busch has said he wants the House to take up slots after completing work on next year's budget, because revenues from expanded gambling would not be expected until future years.

"We've been dealing with this issue for 20 years," Hixson said this week in response to concerns that her committee is waiting too long. "If we need to write a bill quickly, that would not be a problem for this committee."

Republicans said they don't want a repeat of last year, when the House committee killed the slots proposal with just a few days left in the session.