ANNAPOLIS – House Republicans Thursday demanded House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, allow debate and a roll call vote on a bill permitting slot machines.
House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert, said there was a clear majority among House Republicans in support of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s slots proposal.
“The Senate has acted on the bill. It will fund 96 percent of the remaining (education reform) commitment and 70 percent of the total,” O’Donnell told reporters at a news conference on Lawyer’s Mall. “This is a very complicated process . . . it’s time to move.”
The slots bill would raise an estimated $60 million from one-time licensing fees for a provision designed to help counties fund education reforms. About half of the revenue from the 15,500 slot machines at six sites would go to the Education Trust Fund.
Delegate Richard Weldon, R-Frederick, chided his colleagues for spending too much time on bills proposed to limit the power of the Republican governor rather than major policy decisions like slots.
“The Senate’s held its hearings and voted (on slots). It’s time for the Speaker of the House to act,” Weldon said. “It’s time to give the green light to let the (slots) bill out of committee and let the members vote.”
Some Republicans remain morally opposed to expanded gambling, but that opposition doesn’t seem to worry the administration.
An Ehrlich spokesman said the governor was also aware that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are hesitant to return to their districts for a second year without a slots package.
“The governor remains cautiously optimistic that his bill has some possibilities if it is considered on merit,” Henry Fawell said. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars that should be spent on education in Maryland not in Delaware.”
Lawmakers have listened to hours of testimony over the last two years about the amount of money being gambled by Maryland residents traveling to West Virginia and Delaware where slot machines are legal.
The governor’s premiere slots bill narrowly passed the Senate last year, but was killed in a House committee, where delegates opted to study the effects of expanded gambling during the session break. Ehrlich’s revised gambling package cleared the Senate by a much wider margin last month.
With the Assembly session already in the backstretch, a House panel will wait until March 30 – only 13 days before the end of the session – to hold its hearing on the Senate’s slots bill, leaving little time for a last-minute rally.
If the Ways and Means Committee votes favorably on slots, the bill would still face debate and a vote in the entire House. Any changes in a House-approved slots bill from the Senate version would have to be worked out between both chambers before the bill could go to the governor.
While Ehrlich, Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, have discussed the matter recently, the bill’s passage is still considered a long shot with House leaders pushing for a tax increase in addition to slots – something the administration has refused to entertain.
Busch criticized House Republicans, and suggested they focus their efforts toward passing the other administration bills already before the body.
“They really ought to concentrate on what’s before them,” Busch said.
Some of the governor’s key agenda items were scheduled for a final vote in the both houses Friday. A bill to impose a user fee on wastewater usage and the governor’s transportation plan were set for a final vote in the House, while the Senate planned to vote on the fiscal 2005 budget.