ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Senate approved a plan to legalize slot machine gambling 27-18 Friday, sending the proposal to the far-less-friendly House of Delegates.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, praised the bill’s successful passage.
“Today is a good day for students in the state of Maryland,” McFadden said.
The Senate’s retooled version of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s slots bill would collect an estimated $60 million in licensing fees to equalize the cost of education in counties in fiscal year 2005, a measure laid out in the Thornton education reform plan. In the years following, slots revenues would go to the Education Trust Fund, once local development grants and race purses were distributed.
The bill awards 15,500 slot machines on a competitive basis to three racetrack locations and three off-track sites.
Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft and a proposed track in Allegany County would all compete for the three available track licenses, while developers in Prince George’s and Cecil counties, and Baltimore City would compete for the three off-track locations.
The legislation requires one racetrack license be awarded to a track in a rural location, effectively guaranteeing slots in Allegany County.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the main purpose of the bill this year was funding Thornton, and expressed hope of working with the House and the governor to establish a stable funding source to solve the state’s budget woes.
Friday’s sigh of relief on the part of the Senate was only the prelude to what is expected to be an uphill battle in the House where Ehrlich’s original slots proposal died in committee last session.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has repeatedly said the House would wait to take up the slots issue once the bill passed the Senate, and indicated state-ownership was among the significant philosophical differences between the two chambers.
“We’d like to see state ownership in there, and find a comprehensive solution to the budget,” Busch said.
Proposals to give the Maryland Stadium Authority ownership of the slots facilities in the Senate’s version died in both committee and floor votes.
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, did not see much hope for the bill in its present form.
“The way it is now, it’s never going to pass the House,” Barve said.
Senators were passionate in their arguments before the vote, as they were in a two-part debate Thursday, when the legislation withstood dozens of potential revisions.
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, urged her colleagues to support the bill for the sake of funding Thornton.
“We’re either going to step up to fund public schools, or we’re going to come up with another excuse,” Lawlah said.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, said the “bill is about greed.”
“The fix is in. By last night, we knew the six locations,” Pinsky said. “The three licenses at the tracks will be given quickly, and how ironic would it be if the one off-track site that doesn’t get built is the one in Cecil County.”
The slots legislation passed the Senate by two more votes than last year’s 25-21 roll call. Two Democratic Baltimore City Senators Verna L. Jones and Joan Carter Conway explained their shift in support for the bill from opponents to proponents, saying the need to fund public education was most important.
In addition to the slots bill, the Senate also voted 35-12 to remove a provision in the Thornton education reforms that could result in a $2 billion loss of funding.
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