Gov. Martin O'Malley and top legislative leaders predicted yesterday that they could finish the General Assembly's special session by this weekend, but a late move to change the potential locations of slot machine parlors showed that the consensus around the governor's multibillion-dollar package of tax increases, spending cuts and expanded gambling remains tenuous.
A key House subcommittee voted last night to remove a proposed slots location from Ocean Downs racetrack near Ocean City and substitute a site in Frederick County. The panel expanded a potential Cecil County site to include Harford County and trimmed the total number of machines that would be allowed.
The subcommittee's action came hours after top leaders expressed confidence that the special session is headed for a speedy conclusion. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats, emerged from an early meeting in the governor's mansion, saying that they can reconcile the differences in their approaches to fixing Maryland's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall.
"Things are on target, and we're fairly confident that the entire package is close to enactment," Miller said.
But Miller and O'Malley cautioned that major changes, particularly to a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize slot machine gambling, could upset the process.
Miller said yesterday morning that he did not back a Frederick County site because the Senate hadn't considered it, but that he didn't think its inclusion would be a deal-breaker.
"I don't think there are any changes that kill the slots plan in the Senate," he said.
The full Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to meet this morning, and House leaders say they hope to bring a slots bill before the full chamber today.
O'Malley has proposed a referendum next November on allowing up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations - one each in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel, Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties. The Senate approved the plan with amendments. It would permit slots at Laurel Park and Ocean Downs racetracks but not at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
The House subcommittee's decision to change slots locations generated quick praise from Eastern Shore officials, who have fought the Ocean Downs site. Business people there worry that the track would siphon money from the local tourism industry, and some critics have complained about the political influence of the track's owner, William Rickman. The Montgomery County businessman has helped pump nearly $400,000 into the accounts of political candidates and committees since 2003, records show.
But the subcommittee's action also sparked huddles by lawmakers from Frederick and Harford counties as they hatched impromptu lobbying strategies to remove their communities from the mix.
Gambling has emerged as the linchpin of the revenue package moving through the legislature. Miller, a slots supporter, is waiting for the House to pass slots legislation before allowing the Senate to take up the House tax bills.
House leaders say a location near the interchange of Interstates 70 and 270 would be significantly more lucrative to the state than the slots parlor at Ocean Downs that O'Malley proposed and the state Senate approved. Frederick, they contend, could attract gamblers from Montgomery County who now drive to Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia.
"There are possibly some substantial issues with the kind of revenue we could generate in the lower Eastern Shore," said Del. Frank S. Turner, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the House gaming subcommittee. "We thought Charles Town was such a high-volume place for people to gamble, and we thought we needed to keep that money in Maryland."
The O'Malley administration and Miller said yesterday that despite their reservations about changes to the legislation, they will be flexible about the details as long as lawmakers vote to put slot machine gambling on the November 2008 ballot.
"Whenever there's all sorts of differences of opinions around any location, it changes all the parameters and considerations that people have," O'Malley said before the House subcommittee vote. "Delegates that might be in favor of it in a broad, general sense have a difficult time voting for it if it's going to be coming to their own jurisdiction, in some cases."
That's what has happened. Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, skipped most of last night's House session to engage in a frenzied behind-the-scenes lobbying effort. After the session, she huddled with Del. David D. Rudolph, a Cecil County Democrat, to talk strategy. "So, I'm calling the governor?" he asked as he walked away from James.
James said the only places along the I-95 corridor in Harford County with the kind of land necessary for a slots parlor are next to Ripken Stadium or in a residential community, and neither is right for slots, she said.
"I'm dead set against it," James said. "Harford County would eliminate any possibility for me to consider [voting for] a referendum."
Del. James N. Mathias Jr., an Eastern Shore Democrat and the former mayor of Ocean City, said he's been lobbying for days to remove his community from the proposed slots locations and that he now believes he can vote for the bill. He said Ocean City contributes tremendously to the state's tax base, and that it would be a mistake to risk its family-friendly tourism economy. Other officials in Worcester County have opposed the idea.
And so do officials in Frederick County, said Jan H. Gardner, president of the county's commissioners. Frederick's commissioners voted three years ago to change the county's zoning to prohibit a slots parlor, and Gardner said a straw poll of the current members indicated that they are unified in their opposition to a site there now.
Del. Paul S. Stull, a Frederick County Republican, said he was on the fence about a referendum before but is opposed now.
Del. Sue Hecht, a Frederick County Democrat, said she was planning to vote for the referendum but won't if a Frederick slots parlor is in the bill.
"It'll be the easiest vote of this special session," she said.
The subcommittee made several other changes to the plan, including a reduction in the overall number of machines to 14,000 from the 15,000 proposed by O'Malley and approved by the Senate. The panel agreed to the Senate plan to give slots operators 33 percent of the profits instead of the 30 percent O'Malley proposed, and increased slightly the percentage of the proceeds that would be dedicated to supplementing horse racing purses.
Busch and Miller said they believe the session could wrap up as early as tomorrow night but more likely on Saturday. The two must reconcile differences on the slots measure and on tax legislation.
Sun reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this article.