Miller gives slots a boost

The Baltimore Sun

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that he won't block a proposed referendum on legalizing slot machines, putting the measure closer to approval in the General Assembly than it has been in years.

Miller, though the legislature's biggest slots proponent, has opposed a referendum on the issue, preferring a straight up-or-down vote in the General Assembly.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots opponent, has long advocated letting the voters decide, a position endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last month.

"It's not the best answer, but the governor feels that he needs to go to a referendum to get through the House," Miller said. "If a bill passes the Senate, it will probably contain a referendum."

Miller's reassurance on slots and the governor's tax proposals - which are likely to be debated by the full Senate as early as tomorrow - is a good sign for O'Malley, a Democrat, who called the legislature into special session to address the state's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.

Members of the Senate Budget and Taxation committee met yesterday to discuss O'Malley's slots bill - a proposal designed to win support among gambling skeptics in the House - and they proposed relatively minor changes.

The most significant of the changes could be an increase in the share of gross gambling revenues, the money left after winning players are paid, that would go to slots operators. O'Malley's plan called for them to keep 30 percent of the profits from the machines.

Miller said he will push for that share to increase - perhaps to 33 percent - so that slots operators can maintain high-quality facilities that would keep Maryland gamblers in state and draw patrons from elsewhere.

Busch said the House will likely be flexible on some of the details of the slots plan.

"Both sides will look to fine-tune a little bit, but the fact that they're moving legislation is important," Busch said.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the 30 percent share for the slots operators makes the plan "one of the most taxpayer-friendly proposals in the nation," but he said the governor would be willing to discuss the issue.

Senate leaders said they expect the framework of O'Malley's bill to clear the Budget and Taxation Committee and make it to the full Senate by the end of the week.

"I think the votes are here, probably, to pass it," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Whether it will have the necessary support on the Senate floor is less clear. Putting a constitutional amendment like the one O'Malley proposed on the ballot requires a three-fifths vote in both chambers.

In the Senate, that will likely mean O'Malley will need votes from Republicans, who have not taken a unified stand on the governor's slots bill.

"The jury is still out," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, the minority leader, from Frederick County.

A House of Delegates committee is due to take up the issue of spending cuts in a hearing tomorrow. The amount that delegates identify - Busch has said they could target as much as $500 million - will determine how much wiggle room legislators have to reduce the $1.1 billion in tax increases that O'Malley proposed.

Senate leaders have already signaled a desire to make changes to O'Malley's corporate tax compliance proposal and his plan to expand the sales tax. Yesterday, Senate leaders said they are considering changes to the new top-income tax brackets the governor proposed for high earners. Montgomery County officials have strongly objected to the proposed rates, which would top out at 6.5 percent for people earning over $500,000 a year.

Miller said he expects the Senate to maintain the new, more progressive structure O'Malley proposed, but to also provide some relief for top wage earners who would be subject to some of the highest combined state and local income tax rates in the nation under the governor's plan.

"We want to make sure working men and working women aren't paying more than they need to," Miller said. "At the same time, we're going to take into account some of Montgomery County's concerns."

Busch said he sees "a lot of flexibility in the income tax proposal."

The governor's income tax plan - which would have lower- and middle-class families paying less and top earners paying more - was the component that helped win support from liberal groups, who were otherwise concerned about the reliance on new revenue from the sales tax, which they consider regressive.

Progressive Maryland Director Sean Dobson said that even if the Senate leaves O'Malley's changes to lower tax brackets intact, letting the wealthy off the hook would be a bad move.

"If you're taking it easier on the people at the top, that money has to be found somewhere else," Dobson said.

Abbruzzese said the governor is willing to compromise, "provided that we end up with a plan that's fair to working families and more progressive."

Today in Annapolis

The House of Delegates begins its search for more budget cuts today in a meeting of the Appropriations Committee beginning at 11 a.m. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said he wants to find as much as $500 million in additional cuts to help eliminate the state's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

In the Senate, lawmakers are set to debate amendments to Gov. Martin O'Malley's package of proposed tax increases in a meeting of the Budget and Taxation Committee scheduled for 1 p.m.

Senate leaders have said they will probably change the governor's proposals, which would tax more services, including real estate management and health club memberships. Other services could be included instead. The Senate is also likely to scale back higher tax brackets proposed for top earners.

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