Senate panel approves bill to allow slots


With more than a little help from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. scored a much-needed victory last night when a Senate committee approved a bill to allow slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.

The unexpectedly strong 11-2 vote in the Budget and Taxation Committee sends the bill to the Senate floor, where even foes concede it is likely to pass -- though not without a fight.

Meanwhile, Miller signaled a willingness to force the General Assembly into a lengthy extended session to win passage of slots over the objections of House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"We could be here in June," Miller said. The 90-day legislative session is scheduled to end April 7, but must continue if a budget has not been passed.

Miller indicated that his plan involves keeping the slots bill tethered to the budget -- though with a relatively small amount of money. That could set up a high-level budget stare-down with the House, even as both chambers have conceded that slots are not necessary to balance next year's books.

The bill that passed the Senate committee claims an ambitious share of the proceeds for education -- 46 percent.

Ehrlich's budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula, said he was "very pleased" with the Senate bill. "This is by far the largest share of the proceeds that any state receives," DiPaula said.

What remained unclear last night was whether the racetrack owners would support a bill giving them 39 percent of the proceeds -- less than in surrounding states.

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said last night that he would have no comment on the bill. The owners of Rosecroft and a track to be built in Allegany County -- both of which would be eligible for slots -- could not be reached to comment.

The rewritten bill gave horsemen -- who had been threatening to withhold support because they were dissatisfied with the amount Ehrlich provided for racing purses -- just enough to bring them aboard. The Senate bill raises their share from the administration's proposed 3.4 percent to about 5.5 percent.

"It's not all we asked for or all that we want, but it gets us much closer," said Alan Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

The horsemen won another contest as the Ehrlich administration backed down on an effort to add two members to the Maryland Racing Commission. That proposal, which was added the day before, was rescinded after trainers and owners expressed concern that it would give De Francis more control over the agency.

The legislation passed by the committee is a sweeping overhaul of the plan proposed by Ehrlich. Like the governor's proposal, the Senate measure allows 3,500 slots each at Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks -- as well as 1,000 at the Allegany track -- but it differs in most other key details.

The Senate bill takes a harder line with the racetracks, holding their share of slots proceeds to 39 percent of the gross -- down from 43.6 percent in the most recent Ehrlich plan. The legislation partly offsets that by sparing the three Central Maryland track owners the total of $120 million in licensing fees Ehrlich had counted on for the budget.

The licensing fees will be replaced by relatively modest $5 million "application fees" for each track.

Miller signaled that these fees would be written into the Senate's version of the budget reconciliation bill -- a measure that must be approved by the General Assembly to ensure the budget can go into effect.

Miller's threat to tie up the reconciliation bill came just minutes after a key Busch ally, Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, said legislation to expand gambling is "dead" for this year.

"That's his first year on the job," Miller said when told of the Montgomery Democrat's comment.

The committee's strong backing of the bill gives it momentum as it heads for a vote on the Senate floor this week. Voting no were Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican.

The legislation approved by the committee sweetens the package for legislators because it pushes the share allocated for education from 42 percent to 46 percent.

The local government share increased from 3.4 percent in the governor's bill to 4.75 percent. The rewritten bill includes language designed to make it more palatable to Baltimore residents -- including an assurance that the state is responsible for needed road improvements.

The city government also reached agreement last night with Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who represents the Pimlico area, on setting up a benefits council to channel aid to neighborhoods closest to the racetrack.

After the agreement, the senators added the Baltimore Democrat's amendment, which they had rejected the night before.

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