ANNAPOLIS – A Senate panel passed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s slots proposal Tuesday night with significant amendments, including an agreement to drop Ocean Downs race track from the list of possible slots sites in the state.
The 11-2 vote by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee came after a storm of criticism from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate Republicans over the Ocean Downs proposal, which had been added by the committee before it backed down Tuesday.
As amended, the slots bill would put a total of 15,500 machines at three racetracks and three off-site locations in the state, with licenses awarded on a competitive basis.
Four racetracks — Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft and a proposed Allegany County track — would compete for three racetrack slots licenses and four jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Prince George’s, Cecil, and Dorchester counties — would compete for the three off-track licenses.
Besides dropping Ocean Downs, the committee also altered the list of potential homes for non-track slots sites. Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties were all deleted from the governor’s original bill.
In addition to tweaking the list of locations for slots venues, the committee also made significant changes to the way revenues would be distributed.
The bill would send the one-time revenue from license application fees — expected to be about $52 million — to school funding. In contrast to Ehrlich’s plan to give track owners a flat percentage of slots revenues, the bill now creates a sliding scale that lowers the share going to license holders as total slot profits increase.
Local development grants and purse funds would also be funded by slots revenues. The rest of the revenue generated by slots would go to the Education Trust Fund.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, opposed the bill on personal grounds but said Tuesday he was comfortable because Ocean Downs was out of the picture. He also doubted slots would come to Dorchester County.
“To put slots in Dorchester, you’d have to change the existing law that mandates that half of the money from slot machines go to charity,” Stoltzfus said.
Ehrlich had called slots at Ocean Downs a “deal-breaker,” and Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias urged lawmakers during the initial bill hearing to keep slots out of Worcester County.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard, said the committee considered an Eastern Shore slots location geographically fair.
“The vast majority of the committee felt that Ocean Downs would be of maximum benefit to the state, but apparently the committee got the wrong impression that Ocean Downs was an option,” Kasemeyer said.
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, said this year’s slots bill was “much improved” from the governor’s first slots bill last year. That bill called for 11,500 slot machines at the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft race tracks, and designated 46 percent of slots profits for the Education Trust Fund.
“The tracks now have to compete for the licenses,” Lawlah said.
The committee also adopted Lawlah’s amendment to prevent more than one license within a two-mile radius.
“Bringing slots to my district would have a tremendous impact, so I felt I had to do something to protect my district,” she said.
Last year’s bill passed the Senate 25-21, but died in the House, where lawmakers opted instead for a study of expanded gambling.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has said the House will wait for the bill to come over from the Senate this year before considering the issue.
-30- CNS 02-24-04