Senate is set for final vote on slots legislation today

Slot machine supporters in the Maryland Senate beat back a series of efforts to hamper legislation to expand gambling in the state, setting the stage for a final vote on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s heavily amended measure this morning.

During yesterday's almost four hours of debate, the Senate removed Dorchester County from the list of counties eligible for slot machine facilities -- bowing to the wishes of the Republican senator who represents that portion of the Eastern Shore.


The Senate also voted to expand the distance required between slot machines locations from two miles to four miles, and it added an amendment to guarantee that one of the three racetracks to receive slots would be the one to be built in Allegany County.

Amendments rejected by the Senate included a proposal to have the state build and operate three slots facilities -- instead of putting them out to bid to private owners -- as well as an effort to cut the share of revenues that could be kept by owners of racetracks and nontrack gambling facilities.


Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller confidently predicted the Senate will pass the measure today and send it to the House of Delegates, where it faces an uncertain fate. Last year, the Senate approved a slot machine proposal, but it was defeated in a House committee.

"Our biggest concern, in my opinion, is not what happens in the Senate, because we have the votes," Miller said. "It's what happens in the House."

Ehrlich echoed Miller's sentiments after the Senate debate. "We're very pleased, but it's only half done," Ehrlich said.

The Senate bill would allow 15,500 slot machines at six locations -- three racetracks and three nontrack facilities. Nontrack sites would be allowed in Baltimore City and Cecil and Prince George's counties, to be picked through competitive bids.

Ehrlich has made the legalization of slot machines a crucial part of his plan to pay for public school funding increases, anticipating annual revenues to the state of more than $800 million.

Supporters of the bill said this year's proposal is a major improvement over last year's, insisting it gives less to track owners and keeps a greater share for the state.

"Last year, we were criticized for directly awarding a track a license," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat and the leader of the floor debate. "We're not doing that this year. They have to make individual bids."

But critics said conditions attached to the bill virtually eliminate competition by prescribing exactly where the slots licenses may be assigned by a commission to be created by the governor and legislative leadership.


"This bill will essentially say one goes to Allegany, one to Pimlico, one to Laurel, one to Cecil County, one to the Inner Harbor and one to National Harbor," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. "What we'll be voting on are six sites because the decision has really been made already."

Pinsky's amendment to cut the share of revenues for slots facility owners was defeated 27-15. "Is it about funding [education] or feathering the pockets of some wealthy racetrack owners?" Pinsky asked.

But Kasemeyer said Pinsky's proposal would make owning a slots facility a money-losing proposition. "This amendment would make it totally unrealistic for the facilities to function," he said.

The removal of Dorchester came after Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Republican who represents the county, objected.

"I talked to the committee members and told them that I objected," Colburn said. "No one had told me that they were adding in Dorchester, which is something I call legislative discourtesy."

Miller conceded that the decision to remove Dorchester was a matter of "local courtesy."


"It butts into the tradition we have of not putting a facility in someone's district if they oppose it," Miller said.

Miller also noted that Colburn is in the midst of a Republican congressional primary, and suddenly allowing expanded gambling in his home county would prove awkward. "He's running for Congress, the election is Tuesday and he said they didn't even talk to him," Miller said. "I think there was a great deal of sympathy for that."

Colburn said he had been planning to vote against the slots measure if Dorchester had remained in the bill, but is now likely to support the bill.

The move to require a greater distance between slots locations came after Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah of Prince George's County realized that Rosecroft Raceway and National Harbor are about 2 1/2 miles apart. Believing that the track and the development were just one mile away from each other, she succeeded in securing an amendment this week requiring that slots facilities had to be at least two miles apart.

Lawlah hopes to block slot machines from being located so close together within her district -- with her preference that the National Harbor development along the Potomac River would ultimately be selected.

The expanded distance would also likely prevent two slots facilities at the Inner Harbor.


The legislation would allow four tracks to apply for the three racetrack slots licenses -- Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and the Allegany site.

An amendment approved by the Senate would guarantee that one of the racetrack licenses goes to a rural track -- ensuring that the Allegany site owned by William Rickman Jr. would receive slots.