ANNAPOLIS – Senate amendments to a bill to permit slot machines removed Dorchester County as a possible gambling site and effectively guaranteed another site at a planned racetrack in Allegany County.
In a floor session that started in the morning, then resumed in late afternoon and ran well into late evening, senators debated dozens of amendments to a plan, originally proposed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. to put slots terminals at racetracks and other sites around the state and send the revenue to education reform.
The Senate version of the bill calls for six slots licenses, with a maximum of 15,500 machines awarded competitively to three racetrack locations and three off-track sites. It also was changed to increase the distance between two slots licenses from 2 miles to 5 miles.
With inclusion of the Ocean Downs track considered a dealbreaker by Ehrlich and the Republican caucus, and the Senate’s rejection of Dorchester County as a potential location, Allegany remains the only rural county in the running for slots.
The Budget and Taxation Committee changed the bill to require one of the three gambling licenses available for tracks “be awarded to a racetrack location in a rural location.” The committee’s changes passed easily by a voice vote, and a final vote on the bill could come as early as today.
Maryland businessman William Rickman holds a permit to build a track in Allegany County. He also owns the Ocean Downs harness track in Worcester County.
During the sometimes testy morning debate, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, challenged the change and argued elimination of Dorchester County amounts to killing competition for licenses.
The committee version originally called for off-track license bidding from venues in Cecil, Prince George’s and Dorchester counties, and Baltimore City.
“It’s important for all of us to understand that we came in with six licenses for eight potential locations,” Pinksy said. “And now we’re in effect voting on specific sites because the decision has been made on those sites.”
Other senators were concerned about potential costs for infrastructure improvements around slots locations and adequate funding for compulsive gambling treatment.
To address some of the local impact worries, Sen. George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore, proposed giving county governments the ability to approve slots licenses in their jurisdictions. The amendment was defeated 20-25.
The Senate bill would allow Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft and the planned track in Allegany County to submit bids for the three available track licenses.
Revenues from licensing fees, estimated at $60 million, would fund part of the Thornton education reforms that supplements counties for varying costs during the 2005 fiscal year. Track owners would receive a maximum of 36 percent of slots proceeds and non-track owners would receive no more than 30 percent.
Local development grants and race purses would be funded by 5 percent and 10 percent of revenues, respectively, and the remaining money would go to the Education Trust Fund.
The governor submitted a slots bill last session that passed the Senate by a thin margin, but died in the House. The governor’s revised proposal this year called for 15,500 slots at four racetracks and two off-track locations.
– 30 – CNS-2-26-04