The Maryland Senate handed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. the most important legislative victory of his young administration yesterday by approving a bill allowing 11,500 slot machines at four Maryland racetracks.
Senators voted 25-21 to pass the measure and send it to the House of Delegates, where Speaker Michael E. Busch says he will prevent its consideration.
After the vote, Ehrlich, flanked by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, told reporters they were "very pleased" by the Senate action.
"To make a very appropriate analogy, we've reached the Sweet 16," Ehrlich said, in a reference to the NCAA basketball tournament. "We still have a ways to go to win the national championship."
Senate passage of the legislation occurred after Ehrlich gave Mayor Martin O'Malley and the leaders of other jurisdictions that are home to Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks a written promise that the state would pay all "reasonable" costs of mitigating the traffic impact of building giant gambling halls.
That assurance was stripped from the bill Friday - prompting O'Malley to announce his opposition. Yesterday, the mayor said he still wants the guarantee written into any slots legislation the General Assembly might pass.
The landmark legislation would bring legal commercial slot machines back to Maryland 40 years after the Assembly voted to ban them. Currently, the only legal slot machines in Maryland are those in some fraternal and veterans' organization meeting halls on the Eastern Shore.
The votes were cast under the shadow of a mounting budget shortfall - exacerbated by the $1.3 billion commitment the state made last year to fully fund the education aid formula recommended by the Thornton Commission.
Supporters of the bill invoked the needs of children frequently during the hourlong debate, noting that 46 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion in slots proceeds would go to schools.
"If we don't pass this bill, we're not going to have Thornton," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., explaining why he broke a campaign promise to oppose expanded gambling. The Anne Arundel County Democrat said it was the hardest vote of his political career.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky denounced the measure as bad public policy, saying that the biggest beneficiaries of the slots plan will be racetrack owners, due to receive 39 percent of the proceeds. The Prince George's County Democrat recalled that six years ago, Pimlico and Laurel chief executive Joseph A. De Francis was convicted of violating state election law.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're making a pact with the devil, and I don't mean Lucifer," Pinsky said.
The vote was a tough choice for many Republican senators - some of whom had opposed expanding gambling when Democrats held the governor's office.
"I hate slot machines. I hate gambling," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who spoke of her brother's compulsive gambling problem, which she said destroyed his family. But the Harford County lawmaker said she saw no other way out of the state's budget problems.
"It might not be the right thing to do in my heart, but it's the right thing to do for my state," she said.
Jacobs was one of 10 Republican senators to vote for the bill. Three voted against, and Harford County Sen. J. Robert Hooper left the floor and did not vote. Democrats opposed the bill, 18-15.
Busch said the narrow margin in the Senate means "there's still a lot of unanswered questions about the long-term issues dealing with slot machines." The House has passed a bill setting up a commission to study the issue and report back next year.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he had several "yes" votes in reserve. "There's at least five more senators that would have liked to have voted for the bill," he said.
Asked how slots proponents will be able to get the bill through the House, where Busch has said he would not bring it up for a vote, Miller said: "That's the governor's job."
Miller praised Ehrlich's lobbying efforts for the bill, saying several Republican senators were swayed by the governor's "hard work and sincerity."
Ehrlich, in turn, thanked the Senate president for being "a terrific partner." Continuing his basketball analogy, he said he would lobby "man to man" to win House passage of the bill.
Pledge to Gladden
The governor had to work hard yesterday morning to hold the vote of Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, the Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico.
Gladden said she went to Ehrlich after the Senate removed a mandate Friday that the state pay for improvements needed to handle traffic to the slots halls.
The senator said she accepted the governor's written pledge to bear those costs with misgivings. "I reminded the governor that he has a history of writing bad checks," she said, a reference to past promises.
The senator also said she was "very agitated" with O'Malley, who was quoted in yesterday's Sun as saying he was "disappointed" that city senators did not resist the amendment.
Lack of leadership
Gladden said the mayor has failed to provide leadership on the slots issue.
"His silence is probably going to be reflected in the very split vote in Baltimore," she said.
City senators voted 4-2 against the bill.
Her complaint was echoed by Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, who said O'Malley did not formulate economic estimates of the impact of the Pimlico slots facility until he was prodded by lawmakers.
"The mayor's running for governor and he doesn't want to get his hands dirty," said Oaks, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods near Pimlico.
O'Malley denied any lack of leadership yesterday. He said he did not provide such data until lawmakers requested it because he didn't think it was up to the mayor's office to do research for the governor's bill.
"I think I've been very clear that I think this is bad policy, and at the same time I've laid out the costs that would fall to the city in the event they decide to move forward," he said.
O'Malley said he would not object to a "reasonable" number of slot machines at Pimlico. Asked what would be reasonable, he said "about half" the 3,500 in Ehrlich's bill.
Cost of success
While leading Democrats helped Ehrlich achieve yesterday's victory, some were talking about exacting a price in the form of taxes to fully meet the Assembly's promises of future public school aid.
"If he wants a slots bill, I think he's going to have to support a large revenue measure," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat.
Ehrlich continued to resist linking the two - though in less than categorical terms. Asked several times yesterday whether he would veto a slots bill tied to taxes, he refused to answer directly - repeating "no taxes."
Miller said he hopes to find a way within the last two weeks of the 90-day session to meet those education commitments.
"Then we could leave here jubilantly and praisefully," Miller said. "The chance of that happening now is very slim."
Senate roll call on slots
A bill to permit slot machines at four racetracks in Maryland was narrowly approved yesterday, as 25 senators voted for it and 21 opposed it. One senator did not vote. Here's how each senator voted:
David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick
James Brochin, D-Baltimore County
Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester
Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's
James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel
Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery
John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George's
Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore City
Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel
John J. Hafer, R-Allegany
Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County
Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery
Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County
Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford
Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard
Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard
Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County
Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George's
Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City
Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's
Donald F. Munson, R-Washington
E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's
Sandra B. Schrader, R-Howard
Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County
Leonard H. Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery
John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel
Gwendolyn T. Britt, D-Prince George's
Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City
George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore City
Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's
Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George's
Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery
Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery
Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's
Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery
Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll
Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore City
Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel
Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore City
Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County
Rona E. Kramer, D-Montgomery
Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles
Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick
Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's
Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery
J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset
J. Robert Hooper, R-Harford