ANNAPOLIS – The fate of this year’s slot machine proposal lies in the hands of a House panel, but individual lawmakers have already wielded the hallowed power of their constituents to limit the committee’s wiggle room.
Baltimore and Harford counties were deleted from Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.’s original slots bill, which called for off-track slots parlors at two spots along Interstate 95, after local senators balked.
Then, a Senate panel tried to situate slots closer to the state’s borders and inserted Dorchester County as a potential site, but Eastern Shore senators learned quickly from their brethren. They protested and Dorchester was removed.
The legislators got their way through an unwritten legislative code called “local courtesy” — asking fellow lawmakers to respect the district’s sentiment when considering a bill that could affect that district.
But that very system of etiquette could significantly handicap attempts to locate slots when the House Ways and Means Committee holds its hearing at the end of March – just two weeks before the session’s end.
Local courtesy in the case of the slots bill is unique because it has been accorded to individual lawmakers. Typically the consideration applies to bills presented to the General Assembly by county delegations that deal strictly with local issues. Lawmakers usually pass local bills without objection, preferring to leave local issues to local leaders.
House Parliamentarian Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George’s, said local courtesy could become an issue if the committee decides to let counties opt out of slot machines.
“If counties can choose to opt out, then that puts more pressure on the counties that haven’t opted out to accept slots,” Menes said.
Somerset County Delegation Chairman D. Page Elmore said local courtesy would be more difficult to define in the House than the Senate since delegates represent much smaller districts.
“In some cases you have three or more delegates per county,” Elmore said. “If you wanted to use local courtesy (in the House), then do you give it to the delegate whose home county it is?”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, jokingly suggested sending a letter to all the House delegation leaders, asking them whether their districts would accept slots.
“That was tongue in cheek,” Busch said of the letter idea. “I only suggested it because it seemed like the popular thing in the Senate.”
But some lawmakers are taking the issue much more seriously.
Prince George’s Delegates Anthony G. Brown and Marvin E. Holmes Jr., joined more than 30 religious leaders from Prince George’s County Friday to protest the idea of expanded gambling in the county. The group said it represented more than 18,000 families who opposed slots.
“We want everyone in Maryland to understand that we also have family values,” Holmes said, referring to the argument used in the Senate debate that communities such as Ocean City and Harford County were “family communities,” and therefore unfit for a slots parlor.
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, held a public hearing Monday to reassess the views of his constituents after asking lawmakers two weeks ago to remove Dorchester from a list of potential off-track sites.
Colburn learned after the final Senate vote that the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce had voted to support slots. He pledged to lobby the county’s House delegation to reinstate Dorchester if citizens agreed.
The Senate’s slots proposal calls for 15,500 slot machines distributed among six competitive licenses awarded to three racetracks and three off-track sites. Revenues from license application fees – estimated to be about $60 million – would be earmarked to fund a portion of the Thornton education reforms that provides extra help to counties. Analysts estimate almost half of slot machine revenues would go toward future education funding.