ANNAPOLIS – Maybe the third time will be the charm for slot machine legislation in Maryland.
For two straight years a version of a bill to legalize slots in Maryland passed in the Senate, only to fizzle in the House. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, hopes the 2005 General Assembly session will be different.
“Hopefully it will pass (in the House),” he said. “We have a deficit, our horse racing is no longer competitive with our sister states, and we have definite needs in regards to our educational system.”
Proponents of slots have said they are needed to ensure the state’s $5 billion horse industry survives. The thought is that slots at racetracks will increase victory purses, so horse breeders and horse owners will be less inclined to search for their riches in neighboring states.
The education comment is a nod to the Thornton Law, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s sweeping education reform bill passed in 2002. Ehrlich has yet to fund the law’s $54 million provision designed to equalize the balance between rich and poor school districts. Ehrlich campaigned for governor in part on a platform to fund state education with slots revenue.
Maryland would see more than $500 million each year from slots revenue, Miller said, which is why he said the Senate will pass a bill for the third time in three years.
“Those revenues are being lost every year,” he said. “We need to keep that money within our borders.”
The governor’s office agrees, but is reluctant to wager on the bill’s ultimate success.
“It’s premature at this point to say (what will happen),” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. “The governor and his staff are reviewing possible legislation on slots.”
Fawell agreed with Miller that the final barrier to slots legislation is House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who he said has consistently stopped slots legislation despite “overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate.”
“If Speaker Busch had helped slots pass two years ago, we would have approximately $600 million in slots revenue coming in right now,” he said. “That’s $600 million down the drain.”
Despite their different party affiliations, for the most part Ehrlich and Miller have agreed on slots legislation, believing machines should be privately owned and placed at existing locations. Busch has always maintained that if slots must exist, then their assets and benefits should be in the hands of Maryland taxpayers.
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate way to fund your government,” Busch said.
However, if approached by Ehrlich and Miller, he said he would be open to further negotiations.
“I always listen,” he said. “(But slots legislation) hasn’t been at the top of my list.”
Busch said one major obstacle to slots is that many Marylanders do not seem to want them in their area, with some people believing they are immoral, or could lead to increased crime. An attempt to put the slots issue to the voters as a constitutional amendment referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot failed in part because people in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City did not want them, he said.
“I don’t have any expectations,” Busch said, adding that all sides have explored the slots issue fully, and already know where everyone stands.
– 30 – CNS 12-22-04