ANNAPOLIS – The House Ways and Means Committee shelved all its slot- machine proposals Friday and unanimously approved a bill to study the impact, quantity and estimated revenue of slot machines.
But, lawmakers disagree on exactly what the bill does.
“In effect, it is the moratorium proposal, but it has the support of the entire House leadership,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, author of the slots moratorium legislation.
However, other legislators say the bill would permit slots legislation to go through.
“I don’t know that there’s anything in (the bill) that precludes slots from passing and getting implemented. While, at the same time, the study would look at the long-term impacts of those slots,” said House Minority Leader Alfred Redmer, D-Baltimore County.
The bill creates a commission of lawmakers and racing representatives to study the impact, number and appropriate location of slot machines. It must submit its findings by New Year’s Eve.
A study won’t do any good, said Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the state’s chief slots proponent, because he won’t look at the issue again after this year.
“Why now?” spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said. “It’s been studied.”
But what Ehrlich learned from a $100,000 study the administration commissioned on how the slots revenue should be split didn’t impress House leaders when his revamped proposal was released Wednesday.
They knocked Ehrlich’s overhaul for giving the industry more money than education and leaving a $230 million hole in the budget. Ehrlich’s latest plan puts 3,500 video lottery machines at the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft race tracks and will eventually generate more than $600 million a year for education. The tracks will receive about 1 percent more of the $1.5 billion than education to cover operating, advertising and capital expenses.
“The numbers weren’t right,” said Delegate Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, who has supported slots for five years, but voted Friday to pass a study.
The committee’s vote does not rule out slots, said Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery. “We will keep our bills, consider any plan the Senate passes, and maybe substitute one of our own.”
The Senate has looked on Ehrlich’s slots plans with more favor, but that has waned.
“We will have to take a week and look at (Ehrlich’s) numbers, look at our own numbers and see if this is the best deal,” said the General Assembly’s most powerful proponent of slots, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D- Calvert.
He declined to say when the Senate might pass a bill.
“Video lottery is looking less and less likely,” said Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, during a morning voting session.
Ehrlich relaxed his stance on taxes, trying to make a deal to pass the slots plan, spokesman Greg Massoni said. After vowing to veto any tax earlier in the session, Ehrlich has said he will look at every tax plan aside from sales, income, liquor and tobacco taxes.
“You have a competent governor who has been in the Legislature and knows the value of a compromise to get something passed,” Massoni said.
But House leadership wants what Ehrlich won’t support – an income tax surcharge on individuals making more than $200,000 a year and families earning at least $250,000.
Their rates would go up 1.25 percent from 4.75 percent to 6 percent.
Without slots revenue, the House will likely rely on new taxes and loophole closings to close the budget gap, Hixson said.
It will still be tricky to pass a working budget, Currie warned, saying new revenues might be considered.
“We have to cut $250 million,” he said. “We’re adding up the numbers and we’re not even close.”