By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (November 7, 2007) - A Senate committee yesterday overwhelmingly approved a plan to legalize slot machines in Maryland, paving the way for the full Senate to take up the issue as early as today.
The package of bills, originally offered by Gov. Martin O'Malley, would allow voters to decide in a referendum next November whether to allow up to 15,000 slot machines in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
The committee approved several changes to the original proposal, such as increasing the amount licensed slots operators make from 30 percent to 33 percent. But the bill would still dedicate half of the slots revenue to education, with the horse racing industry also receiving contributions.
The bill also mandated that licensees invest $15 million for every 500 slot machines and contained language designed to keep the Preakness Stakes, run at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course, in the state. Joseph Bryce, the governor's chief legislative aide, said the investment mandate will ensure the quality of the slot machine parlors in the state.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said full Senate debate on the referendum, which as a constitutional amendment requires approval by a three-fifths majority of the legislature, could begin Wednesday.
Senate Republicans had pledged to vote against all slots initiatives before the special legislative session, but only one of the four Republicans on the Budget and Taxation Committee, Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, voted against both O'Malley proposals.
Those defections did not surprise Miller.
"When you've been doing this long enough, you kind of figure out what happens" before it actually does, said Miller, who has headed the Senate since 1987.
Sens. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, and Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, thought too much protection was being given to the horse racing industry, which could bring in up to $140 million per year for richer purses and racetrack upkeep.
Zirkin called that an "extraordinary amount" to hand out during a budget crisis, and Madaleno said it was "an unparalleled investment" for an industry whose viability is being questioned. But Madaleno's motion to steer those revenues elsewhere failed.
Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, R-Frederick, proposed adding Prince George's County's Rosecroft Raceway to the slot machines locations, calling it "potentially the most profitable" possible venue and noting that only two of the five current proposed locations could be racetracks.
The motion failed, and Brinkley did not vote on the proposal that spelled out how revenues would be divided and slot machine parlors supervised.
Brinkley, who voted against the referendum, said he did not want to vote against slots but had major issues with this proposal. The committee just wanted "to throw something back at the House," Brinkley said, adding this was "an imperfect bill at best."
Sens. Donald Munson, R-Washington, and George Edwards, R-Garrett, voted for both proposals.
Munson, a longtime slots supporter, noted he had agreed to oppose slots in the special session to try to keep the session from being called.
"But once that didn't work, I had to represent my constituents," Munson said.