ANNAPOLIS – The Senate moved closer Wednesday to legalizing slot machine gambling in Maryland, while a House committee heard familiar testimony from both sides of the debate.
“If there’s something new that we haven’t heard before, we’d like you to start with that,” quipped House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, at the start of the hearing.
Last year, Hixson’s committee buried the slots bill.
Slots have found stronger support in the Senate, which is scheduled to vote on a revised measure today. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, is a powerful proponent of slot machine approval, and the Senate has backed slots measures two consecutive years.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who introduced this year’s bill, says slots are urgently needed to repair the state’s aging public schools, and his measure would yield $100 million each year for school construction. Slots revenue also would fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which helps compensate school districts with higher operating costs and is part of the Thornton law for improving public schools.
Maryland’s horse racing industry also could be saved with slots, Ehrlich said.
The governor did not attend the Ways and Means hearing, as he did last week’s Senate Budget and Taxation Committee meeting.
Other administration heavy-hitters made the case for slots: four Cabinet secretaries, including Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula Jr., as well as State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick.
DiPaula told lawmakers that legalizing slots is vital to Maryland.
“The question is not ‘Are Marylanders going to play slot machines?'” he said. “It’s only ‘Where?'”
Also supporting the bill were labor union members and racing industry workers and executives.
Slots opponents last week refused to attend last week’s Senate committee hearing, saying the committee had become a rubber stamp for the bills. But they were at the House committee hearing.
Baltimore businessman Noel Levy was one of them.
“We don’t need slots because you can blow your money on lottery tickets with the same odds of winning,” Levy said, drawing applause from slots opponents.
The Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote on the bill within a week.
The Senate’s main change to the governor’s measure was to eliminate mention of specific locations for slots parlors, leaving that to a committee. But some senators tried Wednesday to return specificity to the bill.
Sen. George Della Jr., D-Baltimore City, introduced four different amendments — all of which failed by wide margins. He said he was concerned the owners of Pimlico Race Course, home to one of the nation’s premiere thoroughbred racing events, are planning to move the track. Introducing a final amendment, Della said Maryland might as well legalize casino gambling.
“Let’s not bottom-fish here. Let’s go for the whole thing,” Della said on the Senate floor. “Let’s generate some real bucks for our education system … and let’s do it with casino gambling.”
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