House slots vote is expected today

The Baltimore Sun

The House of Delegates is poised to vote on Gov. Martin O'Malley's slots referendum plan this morning after a frenzied day of amendments and lobbying that put the measure closer to passage in that chamber but still left the fate of gambling in Maryland uncertain.

The day began with a surprise about-face by a key House subcommittee on the locations of slot machine gambling parlors and ended with a technical hangup that delayed a floor debate and votes.

All day, legislative leaders and O'Malley scrambled to secure the "supermajority" of 85 House votes needed to put a slots measure on the November 2008 ballot.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said last night that the chamber's leaders and O'Malley were working to get the necessary votes. He said that he didn't know how many more votes they needed, but that several Republicans who had said they would vote for the bill have apparently decided against it.

"They seem to be wavering on giving the people a vote on slots through a referendum," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.

Speaking last night after receiving an award from Progressive Maryland, O'Malley said he intended to stay up all night trying to get more House votes.

"I'm working it as hard as I possibly can," he said. "It's a tough climb. Having to reach a super-majority all within the Democratic Party on this issue is really, really difficult. Hopefully, we'll make progress overnight and get this done" today.

The version of a slots referendum before the House today is nearly identical to one the state Senate approved last week and to O'Malley's original proposal. It calls for a referendum on allowing 15,000 machines at five locations - one each in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel, Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties. That would allow slots at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel and Ocean Downs racetrack in Worcester, but not at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

The House Revenues Subcommittee removed the Ocean Downs site Wednesday night and added possible locations in Frederick and Harford counties. But the subcommittee abruptly reversed those decisions yesterday.

"You've got to count your votes, and you've got to know if you've got 85," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the subcommittee. "Eighty-four wont cut it."

The House bill would require another referendum to expand gambling in the future, but the Senate bill would allow new forms of gambling - such as table games - with a three-fifths' vote of the legislature.

But even if the House passes the referendum bill, backers face another hurdle.

The Ways and Means Committee did not take up a companion bill that lays out the details of how a slots program would be implemented. Some delegates have said they could vote for a referendum to let the people decide on slots but not for the companion bill, apparently leaving that legislation short of the simple majority of 71 votes it needs to pass.

Busch said the House would take up the companion bill only if the referendum passes first.

The possibility that the referendum bill could pass while the other bill could fail sent Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the legislature's chief slots proponent, into a tirade. He called the idea of a referendum without enabling legislation "a fraud."

"Quit lying, cheating and stealing [from] the public and convincing them you're doing something you're not," the Southern Maryland Democrat declared.

Shortly after O'Malley learned that the House was poised to pass the referendum but not the companion bill, he canceled a planned appearance at the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and started lobbying.

Sitting in the Senate lounge just before meeting with O'Malley, Miller said he had no idea what was going on in the House.

"You want to see what today's been like, guys?" Miller said as he opened his jacket to show where a red pen had bled through the pocket of his white dress shirt over his heart.

Miller said failing to pass the companion bill would put tax legislation in jeopardy and would eliminate the chances for an expansion of health care or for a new initiative to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, top priorities in the House.

House leaders have not definitively said whether the companion bill will be taken up in this session or at a later date. The legislature could wait to pass it during the regular legislative session that starts in January or even in 2009, after a public vote on slots, but Miller complained that he could not trust the House to do so.

The House had originally intended to pass an unamended version of the Senate's slots referendum bill, which would have sent the measure straight to the ballot without the need for another Senate vote.

But a strategy shift by House leaders just after 6 p.m. indirectly resulted in the delay in the slots debate. Instead of bringing the Senate-approved bill to the House floor, the House took up its version of the legislation that contained identical language.

The change gave them a fail-safe referendum option if talks break down. By leaving the Senate bill in reserve, the House preserved its ability to put the referendum on the ballot without further action by the Senate.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority leader from Southern Maryland, stood on the House floor last night to ask for a delay. All the amendments that Republican legislators had drawn up were keyed to the Senate bill, not the House bill, he said.

After a brief huddle with his aides, Busch agreed that a delay was necessary and gaveled the session to a close until 10 a.m. today.

Republican votes could be key to the final outcome. The vast majority of the GOP caucus supported slots under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. But Republican leaders have been wary of a referendum, saying it is not an appropriate way to enact such a policy.

Several Republican delegates have said they were on the fence.

Del. J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican and staunch slots supporter, voted against the referendum in the Ways and Means Committee. He said it's the hardest vote he has ever had to take.

Jennings said he is worried that a huge public campaign - buoyed by gambling interests in neighboring states who don't want competition from Maryland - will defeat a referendum.

"It's like a poker game, all in," Jennings said. "If it fails in referendum, it's dead forever. If it fails in the legislature, we can always come back next year."

But Del. D. Page Elmore, an Eastern Shore Republican, voted for it in committee.

"I want the people to decide," he said. "We've tried to decide this for five years, and we've never come to a conclusion."

O'Donnell, the minority leader, said the GOP caucus never claimed to be unanimous on slots.

"The real question is how many Democrats are going to vote against it," O'Donnell said. "The answer to that is worth its weight in slots jackpots."

andy.green@baltsun.com

Sun reporters James Drew and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

Developments

A House of Delegates committee endorsed a referendum for the November 2008 ballot authorizing 15,000 slots at locations in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore City. Debate is scheduled to begin today.

The House drew protests from the Senate by delaying action on a companion bill that sets out terms of the slots program, including division of revenue from the machines.

House amendments to the slots bill that passed the Senate last week mean that even if the House bill passes, the two chambers will have to negotiate a compromise before the measure can go on the ballot.

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