Miller awaits O'Malley's slots cue

The Baltimore Sun

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller insisted yesterday that Maryland will legalize slot machines within the next year, but he said he will not push a gambling bill through his chamber without Gov. Martin O'Malley's blessing.

Miller has been at the forefront of an effort to have Maryland address its long-term budget shortfalls immediately, and he made his case yesterday at a hearing on his slots proposal before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. But he acknowledged that he can't win passage without the support of O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, two fellow Democrats.

"If the governor says, 'Pull the trigger,' I'm going to pull the trigger and move forward as quickly as possible," Miller said, adding that unless that happens, "I'm not going to ask the committee to take a vote."

Miller stirred up a quiet General Assembly session last week when he introduced his slots bill along with a proposal to raise the gasoline tax, but his comments yesterday suggest that he won't push for a confrontation this year on an issue that has sharply divided the Senate and House of Delegates.

A House committee is scheduled to hear testimony on several slots-related bills tomorrow, but the basic positions of the two chambers appear not to have changed, despite dire fiscal projections for the state and renewed pleas from horse racing boosters that slots are needed to save their industry.

O'Malley has said he favors a limited slots program at tracks such as Laurel and Pimlico to save horse racing, but he has also said he wants to consider the issue as part of a comprehensive look at the state's finances next year.

"It was for discussion purposes, and we were listening," O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said of the hearing.

Busch said the House is concerned about the fate of the horse racing industry but that it will look for ways to help without giving track owners a blank check.

"Hopefully, we can give some definitive structure to exactly what the needs of the horse racing industry are in terms of being viable regardless of how it gets its revenue source," said Busch, who pushed a House bill last year that would have allocated $15 million from the state lottery to supplement purses.

The event had a familiar air for most of the participants. More than two dozen slots proponents made their fifth annual trek to the committee yesterday, an exercise they variously described as "Groundhog Day," "deja vu all over again" and "preaching to the choir."

The Senate is full of slots fans, and there is no place they are more concentrated than in the Budget and Taxation Committee. The last time a slots bill moved through, the committee voted to support it, 11-2. Despite some turnover after November's election, people on both sides of the debate agree that pro-slots sympathy is just about as strong there.

Most of the arguments slots proponents gave are ones that they have provided in previous years. Members of the horse racing industry said they are suffering from competition in bordering states where slots are legal, and they predicted that without the addition of slot machines, Maryland tracks will cut racing days, breeding operations will move elsewhere and jobs will be lost.

The situation is more dire this year, though, because of the advent of slots at racetracks and other locations in Pennsylvania.

"Why is this year different from any other year?" said Alan Foreman, general counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "We have cut days. We have cut races. We have cut stakes. We have cut purses. We have people leaving the state. But the simple fact is, we're out of money. ... It's all over now."

Several committee members left little doubt about where they stood on the issue.

"You made the plea to us, and we responded," Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, told the slots backers.

"Your problem is on the other side," he said, referring to the House. "At some point, they're going to have to understand the severity of the situation."

As slots backers in the Senate see it, the situation is bleak not just for the horse industry but for the state treasury as well. Propped against the wall behind Sen. Ulysses Currie, the committee's chairman, was a poster showing a graph of Maryland's "structural deficit," a gap between the amount the state is expected to spend and what it is expected to take in. The projected deficit is $1.3 billion next year.

Miller said that if the state raised the sales tax, the income tax and the property tax, it still wouldn't generate enough money to fill that hole.

"This bill is not about myself. It's not about the speaker. It's not about the governor," Miller said. "It's about the people of Maryland and the financial situation of the state."

Slots foes took a hands-off approach to the hearing. Comptroller Peter Franchot, a slots opponent from his House days who has promised to use the influence of his new office to fight gambling, said yesterday morning that he wants to "put a stake through the heart of the vampire called slots once and for all."

But he didn't testify at yesterday's hearing and neither did many other slots opponents. Only three showed up, and they didn't get a chance to speak until the senators had heard nearly three hours of pro-slots testimony.

W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for slots opponents, said the lack of opposition in the Senate committee was a strategic decision because there was little chance of changing minds there. That will be different if Miller's bill passes the Senate and moves on to the House.

"You're going to see a lot of people down here," he said. "It's going to be awful hard to walk through the House office building."


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