House Passes Referendum by Narrow Margin, But Slots Work Only Half Done

By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (November 16, 2007) - The House narrowly approved a constitutional amendment Friday that will let voters decide whether to legalize slot machine gambling in a referendum next November.

The measure passed 86-52, just one vote more than the three-fifths supermajority needed to amend the constitution. The plan places up to 15,000 slot machines at locations in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said it was time for the voters to decide the fate of an issue that has dominated proceedings in Annapolis for years.

"For five years, we have not been able to" reach consensus on slots, Busch said, adding "86 members felt this was important enough to" allow the citizens to decide.

But the House's work on slots is only half done. The chamber still needs to pass accompanying legislation that details how slots revenues will be divided and slot machine parlors supervised.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said earlier Friday that both slots bills must be passed during the special legislative session, comparing the referendum without the companion bill to a car without a motor.

"It doesn't go, it doesn't work," Miller said. "I said, 'Look it's not going to work, it's going to be a fraud on the public.' . . . So basically my position is either try the best you can, you can either pass two bills or no bills."

Busch said he was not sure whether there are enough votes in the House to pass the second slots bill, but that the chamber would "continue to work hard" on the legislation.

Some lawmakers who voted for the referendum said they were not sure they could support the companion bill.

"I've got to give that one some thought," said Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George's, after the referendum vote. "But I need to take a deep breath first."

Slots are a major part of the revenue package Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed to bridge a projected $1.7 billion shortfall in next year's budget.

O'Malley called Friday's vote "the most difficult" of the special legislative session, saying it could be "a major tipping point" as the House tries to pass the companion slots bill and both chambers try to reconcile the tax plans they passed last week.

Both the House and Senate are due back Saturday to continue work.

A House panel Friday night finalized its changes to the second slots bill, producing a plan slightly different from that passed by the Senate last week. The full Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to begin considering the plan Saturday morning.

The House referendum plan that passed Friday is also similar to that of the Senate. The House passed just one amendment to that bill Friday, mandating that slot machine parlors comply with local zoning ordinances in response to delegates who complained that the wishes of local governments were being ignored.

The House bill also states any further gambling expansions can only occur with a majority vote of both houses of the General Assembly and a referendum. The Senate bill requires only a three-fifths majority of both houses.

Two other amendments, offered by Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, an ardent slots foe, both failed by narrow margins. The amendments would have prohibited slot machine parlors in localities where a majority of voters voted against the referendum and would have banned slot machine operators from making political contributions.

Simmons quoted then-Baltimore Mayor O'Malley while opposing the referendum on the House floor, calling slots "a gimmick that disproportionately targets the poor." He also called the referendum a "subterfuge to bring (slots) in through the back door."

Minority Whip Christopher Shank, R-Washington, spoke for many Republicans who voted against the referendum, saying "many of us do support slots . . . (but) don't support them at any cost."

Shank said the plan ignores the wishes of local jurisdictions and that predetermining the locations would create "billionaires overnight." He argued that operating licenses should be auctioned to the highest bidder instead of being assigned to specific locations.

Shank and other referendum opponents also said the House was shirking its responsibility as lawmakers by putting the issue to referendum.

But Davis said the General Assembly had reached an impasse on slots.

"The only way to move forward is by putting it to the citizens," Davis said.

Davis, a slots foe, said after the vote that he will "do my part, the same as any other citizen" and campaign against the passage of the slots referendum next November. But he voted for the referendum because the legislature's focus on slots over the last few years has led to "the death of other important legislation."

That was little consolation for Delegate Curt Anderson, a longtime slots opponent.

"I didn't expect people who have intelligence and say they are progressive to cave in like they did," said Anderson, D-Baltimore.

-- CNS reporters Kenneth R. Fletcher and Andy Zieminski contributed to this report.

How the Southern Maryland Delegation Voted

Voting FOR the Referendum:

John Bohanan Jr. (D-29), St. Mary's County
Sally Jameson (D-28), Charles County
Sue Kullen (D-27), Calvert County
Murray Levy (D-28), Charles County
James Proctor Jr. (D-27), Calvert & Prince George's Counties
Joseph Vallario, Jr. (D-27), Calvert & Prince George's Counties

Voting AGAINST the Referendum:

Peter Murphy (D-28), Charles County
Anthony O'Donnell (R-29), Calvert & St. Mary's Counties
John Wood, Jr. (D-29), Charles & St. Mary's Counties

Featured Sponsor

Jay Hansen, independent AMSOIL dealer.

Reader Comments

Featured Sponsor

St. Mary's Nursing Center
Long-term care and rehabilitation facility located in beautiful St. Mary's Co. in Southern Maryland.

Need Legal Representation?

Three So. Maryland locations to serve you. Personal Injury, Criminal Defense, DUI Defense.

Follow SoMd HL News