Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Senate GOP could reject bill on slots


The quick movement of slots through the Maryland Senate hit a speed bump yesterday, as Senate Republicans threatened to kill Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legislation if it is amended to permit expanded gambling near Ocean City.

Amendments proposed by a Senate committee also drew criticism from the Baltimore mayor's office yesterday as it began to appear more likely that a slots facility would be destined for downtown.

The decision by the Senate Republican caucus to oppose slots legislation unless the Ocean Downs harness track is excluded sets up a high-stakes showdown with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. Miller, the governor's most important ally on slots, wants them included at Ocean Downs to lure customers from nearby Delaware's track-based machines.

The track is in the home district of the Senate minority leader, J. Lowell Stoltzfus -- a vocal opponent of putting slots near the popular tourist resort town -- and Ehrlich has repeatedly said he opposes that site as a gambling destination.

"The governor cannot support a bill that has slots at Ocean Downs. It's a major issue that he opposes," said Ehrlich budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. "On all of the other issues proposed by the Senate, we can work with them. Ocean Downs is not acceptable."

But Miller and several other influential Senate Democrats insist it's important to permit slots at Ocean Downs to ensure Maryland maximizes the revenue from expanded gambling.

"What I'd like to see is Ocean Downs included in this bill," Miller said.

Miller conceded that Republican votes are crucial to Senate passage of a slots bill. Last year, the Senate approved the measure 25-21, with nine of the 14 Republican senators supporting it. The bill was then killed in a House committee.

The governor is seeking to permit 15,500 slot machines at four Maryland race tracks and two nontrack locations along the Interstate 95 corridor to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to help pay for promised increases in public schools funding.

Over the past two days, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee has proposed changes -- including adding a third nontrack location and the track near Ocean City as sites eligible for slot machines.

Although the committee had been aiming to vote on its proposal yesterday -- and meet Miller's desire to have the full Senate considering the slots legislation by early next week -- the process came to a halt. Sen. Ulysses Currie, the committee's chairman and a Prince George's County Democrat, said he doesn't intend for the committee to publicly discuss the slots bill again until early Tuesday morning.

"We want to give the staff an opportunity to work on it," Currie said.

But Currie emphasized that he believes Ocean Downs should remain in the Senate's proposal. "We're looking to put slots where the people are," he said.

Stoltzfus, the Eastern Shore Republican who represents Ocean City and opposes slots there, said he was caught by surprise Wednesday night by the Democrats' decision to include Ocean Downs.

"Suddenly, it was in there, and no one gave me any warning. It was a total shock," said Stoltzfus, the Senate's minority leader.

By yesterday morning, the 13 other Republican senators had banded behind Stoltzfus and agreed as a caucus to oppose the bill unless Ocean Downs is removed, saying they would rather kill the centerpiece of the governor's fiscal solution than see slots get put in the minority leader's district against his wishes and the wishes of Ehrlich.

"We oppose a bill that is contrary to the will of the governor and the minority leader," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and the Senate party whip.

The surprising support from Democratic senators to put slots at Ocean Downs comes after intense lobbying from track owner William J. Rickman Jr., who also holds the license to build a track in Allegany County, which would be eligible for slots.

"How can you allow slots at all of the other tracks but not this one?" Rickman said yesterday.

But critics say that if the fight over Ocean Downs leads to the demise of the legislation, it only helps Rickman by keeping millions of dollars a year from Maryland flowing to the slot machines at the track he owns in Delaware.

Leonard P. Berger, a prominent area business leader who owns the Clarion Resort Fontainebleu Hotel, condominiums and other businesses, said businessmen and the owners of hotels and restaurants adamantly oppose allowing slots at Ocean Downs or elsewhere in Worcester County.

Berger sent Ehrlich a letter last Friday reiterating that opposition. "It is our feeling that slot machines would be detrimental to our family image and to the general business climate in Ocean City," Berger wrote.

Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. has also criticized the Senate's move to add slots to Ocean Downs and said he hopes the governor uses his influence to block it.

"It went from three locations to eight locations in a year," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots opponent. "The comment I would have is, 'It's coming to your neighborhood soon.' ... By the time it's over, there will be something in every community."

The move to create three nontrack sites for slots appears to make it all but inevitable that one gambling location will include downtown Baltimore.

While the nontrack destinations would be decided by a commission created by the bill, lobbyists and lawmakers familiar with the committee's amendments said it appears likely that slots locations would end up at National Harbor in Prince George's County and somewhere in Cecil or Harford counties near the Delaware border. That leaves downtown Baltimore as the likely third nontrack slots den.

The addition of a third location -- after the governor had proposed two nontrack sites -- drew criticism yesterday from a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"The mayor has always said that he would not support casinos in the Inner Harbor or in the downtown area, and this falls right in line with that," said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "The Inner Harbor, in particular, is a family friendly venue, and we'd like it to remain that way."

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser, Greg Garland and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad