By KATE PRAHLAD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (November 18, 2007) - The House pushed forward major bills on slot machines and Medicaid expansion Saturday, as lawmakers began a rush to finish a mountain of work left in the special session, perhaps as early as Sunday.
The action came one day after the House passed and sent to the Senate a bill that puts the question of slot-machine gambling before the voters at referendum next fall.
The second half of the slots package, detailing how slots will be regulated and how revenues will be divided, was passed Saturday by the House Ways and Means Committee and was being debated by the full House into Sunday morning. A final vote was expected early Sunday.
Both the House and Senate were scheduled to come back Sunday evening to take up the bulk of the work of the special session: slots, budget cuts, a Chesapeake Bay fund, Medicaid expansion and increases in sales, income, corporate and other taxes to close the state's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.
Both House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told lawmakers Saturday they were hopeful the session could end Sunday, despite the remaining workload.
"We will have, with any luck, the two budget bills in front of us and if we can come to an agreement with our colleagues in the Senate, we can finish up the special session late tomorrow night and everybody can have time for Thanksgiving week and prepare for January," Busch told delegates Saturday night.
Busch called the slots bill on the floor Saturday an "evolution" after five years of previous legislation in Maryland and from examples from neighboring states.
"Ways and Means worked very hard on this," he said. "There are no huge surprises."
The "companion bill" to the referendum calls for 15,000 machines in the state if voters approve the referendum. The machines would be divided among five locations: Anne Arundel County would get 4,750, Baltimore City would get 3,750, Worcester and Cecil counties would each see 2,500 machines and 1,500 would go to Rocky Gap State Park in Allegany County.
The House bill also allocates 33 percent of slots revenues to license owners, 3 percent more than what they would get in the administration's and the Senate's proposals.
Delegate Frank Turner, D-Howard, chairman of the subcommittee that put forth the bill, said the higher take for slots licensees would help them be competitive with surrounding states.
"It's important that they remain competitive with a first-rate facility," he said.
Education would receive 48.5 percent of the revenues. That amount would increase to 51 percent after eight years, when a provision giving 2.5 percent of revenues to a racing renewal fund expires.
Maryland's horse racing industry would get 7 percent of the revenues for purses. The House bill would also dedicate $6.4 million to programs for problem gamblers, one of the highest levels in the nation, according to supporters.
Several amendments were added on the floor, including provisions to give local officials the ability to limit the amount of food and alcohol served in slots parlors, require lottery commissioners to file financial disclosure forms and bar the Ocean Downs parlor from establishing businesses that would compete with nearby Ocean City.
Unlike the referendum bill, which needed a super-majority of 85 votes to pass the House, the companion bill needs only a simple majority of 71 votes. The referendum vote passed Friday night with one vote to spare, 86-52.
Busch conceded that legislators who voted for the referendum might go home and campaign against it, or return to their districts and promote slots.
"You can't fool the general public," Busch said. "Voters make good decisions.
"We just made it available to people," he said. "It's the purest form of democracy."
Also Saturday, the House Health and Governmental Operations Committee unanimously approved a Medicaid expansion plan that mirrors the proposal from Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The health bill, which would cost an estimated $600 million over six years, expands Medicaid eligibility guidelines to reduce the number of uninsured Marylanders, including childless adults. It also establishes a subsidy fund for small-business owners to help them provide health insurance to employees.
"This is a significant step toward reforming health care," said Delegate Peter A. Hammen, D-Baltimore. "It's a costly first step, but one we had to take."
The full House delayed action on that bill until Sunday.
While delegates were meeting, House and Senate negotiators have been meeting informally to work out differences in the remaining bills. Busch said negotiations over the tax bills were "very good," and that there was an amount of flexibility going on.
"We've got a goal and where we're trying to get to," he said.
The House and the Senate income tax bills differ in tax brackets and rates, and the two chambers also have disagreed on whether to expand the sales tax to any services not already included.
-- CNS reporter Rick Docksai contributed to this report.