The two chambers of the General Assembly veered in different directions on gambling yesterday as the House voted overwhelmingly for a six-month study and the Senate forged ahead with efforts to craft its own version of a bill allowing slot machines at racetracks.
The House voted 126-11 for a study bill backed by Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat. The legislation does not preclude a later decision to accept Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to install 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks, but even supporters said chances of that happening are fading.
"I'm not sure slots are going to pass," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and former gambling opponent who now supports the governor's plan.
Opponents of the governor's plan were jubilant at the size of the House vote. "Today is the beginning of the end in this session for slots," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.
In the Senate, a committee acting at the direction of President Thomas V. Mike Miller called in racetrack owners to explain why they need the 44 percent share of the total slots proceeds allocated to them under Ehrlich's revised gambling bill.
Each of the three racetrack ownership teams insisted that percentage was as low as it could go and still build the large gambling halls Ehrlich is counting on to bring more than $640 million in revenue to the state each year.
"It won't be possible for us to finance the project if we end up with less," said Joseph A. De Francis, who runs the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks for Magna Entertainment Corp.
As senators wrestled with legislation on slots at the racetracks, a leading business group further complicated the debate by endorsing a slots bill this year - but not necessarily at the four racetracks favored by Ehrlich and Miller.
The Greater Baltimore Committee, sticking to the same position it took in 1997, urged lawmakers to find a way to introduce an "element of competition" into the awarding of slots licenses.
"Though it's late in the session, we believe the state could enact gaming legislation that would recapture lost gaming revenue, develop quality gaming venues, create jobs, and impact state revenues beginning in fiscal 2004," said Donald C. Fry, president of the group.
The GBC's position could give a small ray of hope to the owners of non-racetrack casino companies, who have been trying to find a way into the Maryland slots picture.
So far, Ehrlich and Miller have resisted any expansion of gambling beyond the four racetracks. But lobbyists for casino interests were in the committee room yesterday as the track owners spoke, and representatives of Wynn Resorts have shared with lawmakers a thick binder with the title: "Maryland Destination Resort Casino Gaming Proposal."
The casino interests have been hoping to take advantage of the dissatisfaction with Ehrlich's handling of slots legislation - both with the content of the plan and the delays in producing a revised bill after the first version was rejected by track owners.
In the House, opponents of Ehrlich's bill said that with a little more than three weeks left in the session, there isn't enough time to grapple with all the unanswered questions about slots.
"Why are we establishing these kinds of monopolies?" asked House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It is important that we make this decision - one of the most important you'll ever vote on - after having full knowledge of all the ramifications of the issue."
Busch said the strong vote for the study bill was a reflection of concerns in both parties that any plan the state adopts should be "well thought out."
"Whether you like slots or don't like slots, no one is comfortable with the current proposal and the lack of specifics," he said.
Many of those who voted for the slots study are supporters of expanded gambling.
The House Republican leadership decided not to fight the bill. Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the House minority leader and a Baltimore County Republican, spoke and voted in favor of it, noting that nothing in it precluded delegates from supporting any bill that might emerge from the Senate.
In the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, members probed for any sign of flexibility on the percentage allocated to racetracks but found little.
Asked whether the tracks could settle for 38 percent of the proceeds, Magna executive Ed Hannah was blunt. "At 38 percent, we won't be building anything," he said.
De Francis heard pleas from members to avoid more of the public relations missteps that have made it politically difficult for them to support slots.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, told De Francis he had been "blistered" for two days straight after constituents read articles in The Sun about proposals pushed by the Maryland Jockey Club, a Magna subsidiary.
One of the proposals - a broad pre-emption of local zoning powers over building the huge gambling halls - was among the amendments proposed by Ehrlich. The administration rejected De Francis' suggestion that tracks be allowed to stay open and serve drinks until 4 a.m.
McFadden told De Francis that legislators need "cover" to support a slots bill. "You stripped the cover, the sheets, the pillow," he said.
De Francis replied that "the whole positive story of slots has not been told," adding that expanded gambling would bring 1,400 new jobs to Pimlico.
The zoning proposal, intended to ensure that the state starts collecting slots revenue as soon as possible, drew widespread criticism.
Miller, the General Assembly's leading supporter of slots, called the amendments curbing local zoning powers "a nonstarter."
"The owners and the proponents of these facilities are going to have to work with local officials on both zoning and alcoholic beverage laws," Miller said.
But some Republicans said they were supporting Ehrlich in the hope of gaining $120 million in up-front fees to help close next year's budget shortfall.
"We're in a fiscal crisis brought on by Parris Glendening," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Washington County Republican. "I'm willing to do that in this instance."