House close to deciding on slots

After killing gambling legislation for two consecutive years, the House of Delegates is poised to vote on a slot machine plan this week, the high point so far in a debate that has embroiled Annapolis since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 election.

"The governor wanted a vote on the House floor, didn't he?" Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday, after a subcommittee endorsed its version of a bill to legalize slot machines. "Whatever we are going to do, we will do this week. ... We're giving it every possibility for people to have a vote."

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to decide today on the bill, which would authorize 9,500 slot machines at four locations in Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Frederick and Harford counties. The machines would generate about $1 billion yearly. The state's portion, about $330 million a year, would be dedicated to school construction.

Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City would share about $150 million a year to use however they like, with money allocated based on how much money is spent in each jurisdiction on the state lottery. Under that formula, the city, Prince George's County and Baltimore County would receive the most slots revenue.

The horse racing industry would get money to increase purses and for track improvements, but no track owner would be guaranteed a slots license under the House plan.

Just one track, Magna Entertainment Corp.'s Laurel racetrack, would be permitted to bid for a license under the House plan. Locations would be chosen by a seven-member panel headed by the state treasurer, from applicants who agreed to pay a $10 million upfront fee and agreed to spend $15 million on buildings and other capital improvements for each 500 machines they operate.

Full House approval, which could come Friday, would set the stage for negotiations with the Senate.

The Senate passed a different version of a gambling plan last week, similar to the governor's proposal, that would provide racetrack owners a greater opportunity to make money from slots. The Senate bill would place 15,500 slot machines at seven locations, four of them racetracks.

It is too soon to tell whether negotiations would yield a compromise, but they would be certain to dominate much of the final six weeks of the Assembly's annual legislative session, which ends in early April.

Through a spokesman, Ehrlich responded favorably to emerging developments on the gambling front.

"Any movement in the House on slots is progress since it hasn't happened in two years," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "The governor will be working with lawmakers in the coming days and weeks toward a final product that is the best for Maryland."

Fawell said the governor will remain "flexible" on a final plan.

By moving a slots bill to the House floor, Busch is looking to dampen criticism that he and House Democratic leaders are obstructing Ehrlich's agenda.

During the 2002 legislative session, Ehrlich's first as governor and Busch's first as speaker, House leaders panned the governor's slots bill as poorly crafted, and voted for a study instead. Last year, delegates killed the bill in committee on the final day of the session.

Negotiations last summer to place a referendum on the November ballot came close to brokering a compromise but fell apart over objections about locations of slots facilities.

If slots fail this year, Ehrlich is widely expected to run for re-election in part on a platform that the General Assembly has thwarted his wishes for a nontax revenue source. Acknowledging the strength of that position, leading Democrats such as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller are hoping to pass a slots plan and deprive the governor of a campaign issue.

Busch said he remains personally opposed to slots and expects only about a third of the 98-member Democratic majority to support the plan. He anticipates a close vote on the House floor Friday if the legislation clears the committee today, and said "the governor's party will have to come up with 35 votes for this to pass."

House Republicans said they were up to the challenge of trying to maintain support within their caucus.

"We're always flexible," said Del. George C. Edwards, the House minority leader from Garrett County. "We like to try to cooperate."

Some delegates said they will vote reluctantly for the House version, banking on changes during negotiations in coming weeks.

But some elements, Busch said, were not negotiable. The House delegations in Baltimore City and Prince George's County each have said they do not want slot machines in their jurisdictions, including at the Pimlico racetrack or in downtown Baltimore. Unless views change, Busch said, the city and Prince George's will not be getting slots.

Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican, said she was disturbed that the House plan targeted all its money for school construction, rather than dedicating millions for school operations as in the governor's and Senate's plans.

With Baltimore out of the House legislation, several city lawmakers are prepared to vote in favor of slots. "Certainly those things that are important to Baltimore City are incorporated in the bill," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of Baltimore's House delegation.

Sun staff writer Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.