By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (November 16, 2007) - A House committee advanced a plan Thursday that would let voters decide the fate of slot machine gambling in a referendum next November.
The full chamber could vote on the proposal as early as Friday.
The House bill largely mirrors one the Senate passed last week, which would put a constitutional amendment before voters that would allow up to 15,000 slot machines in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
As a constitutional amendment, the measure needs 85 votes, or a three-fifths majority, to pass the House.
The House was poised to vote on the plan Thursday night, but delayed action after a day of back-room conversations and apparent arm-twisting that left even lawmakers dazed. House leaders decided to adjourn Thursday night to give delegates time to draft amendments.
"We've had so many changes and twists and turns," said Delegate J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County. "It's amazing what's happened in 10 hours."
As of Wednesday night, a House subcommittee had amended the Senate's version of the slots bill to strip out a proposed Worcester County site and replace it with Frederick County, arguing that Frederick could lure gamblers who now play Charles Town, W.Va., slots. The subcommittee also added Harford County to Cecil County as a potential site along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Around noon Thursday, the same subcommittee reversed itself and approved the Senate version of the bill because it was believed to have a better chance of passing.
"Even though I think we put out a good product, we have to make sure we have 85" votes, said Delegate Frank Turner, D-Howard, who chairs the Finance Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
By Thursday afternoon, the full Ways and Means Committee put the House version of the slots bill, HB4, back on the table alongside the Senate version, SB4. But while the Senate version of the bill struck language that would have required a referendum for any expansion of gambling in the state, the House kept the referendum requirement.
Meanwhile, the full Ways and Means Committee did not push forward accompanying legislation that spells out guidelines for implementing slot machine parlors and how revenues would be divided.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the referendum needed to be passed before the accompanying proposal would be considered. Without the referendum, "there is no companion bill," Busch said after the House adjourned for the day.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, was left fuming by that decision.
Miller, a longtime slots supporter, said that if the House could only pass the referendum bill, HB4 or SB4, it might as well not pass any slots legislation at all. He said the Senate might throw out funding to cleanup the Chesapeake Bay and expand Medicaid if the entire slots package is not passed.
But even passage of the referendum bills was not assured Thursday night.
As votes on the House floor were continually delayed Thursday, Gov. Martin O'Malley personally met with delegates in Busch's office and House leaders worked with members to assuage doubts over locations and whether voters should decide the fate of slots.
"It's kind of like a Rubik's Cube," said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery. "Every time you get one thing figured out, another problem pops up."
Busch said at the end of the day that he thought the referendum would eventually "get over the hump."
And Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George's, said she thought "the votes were there," adding the House adjourned simply so "the other side" could prepare its amendments.
But House Minority Whip Christopher Shank, R-Washington, was not so sure.
"I guarantee you if they had the votes, they would have" brought the referendum to the floor Thursday night, Shank said. "The real reason (for adjourning) is to get the votes."
Still, Shank said he would not bet against the Democrats, who have long dominated Maryland government.
"Monopolies don't like to lose," Shank said during one of the House's midday breaks.
"And they particularly don't like to embarrass their chief presiding officer," Shank said, referring to O'Malley.
-- CNS reporter Kenneth R. Fletcher contributed to this report.