ANNAPOLIS – The Senate Friday passed a bill to legalize video slot machine gambling in Maryland, sending the matter to an uncertain future in the House of Delegates.
Legalization of slots is a priority of both Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert. Passage of the bill would mean hundreds of millions in extra funding for public education.
The governor’s original bill specified venues and numbers of slot machines. But the Senate removed mention of specific racetracks, adding a new commission that would determine slots sites.
The Senate voted 26-21, a margin similar to those in the previous two legislative sessions. Many of those voting against the bill said they were following their constituents’ wishes.
Others did not want to see slot machines — and potential social downsides they might bring — in their back yard. Five Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus of Somerset — voted against the bill for that reason.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, said she wanted Baltimore to be ruled out as a slots venue. Although she agreed school problems needed to be solved, she said was skeptical that taxing slots were the way to do it.
“I can remember way back when, when the lottery came, all of the dollars were actually dedicated to education,” Conway said. “And ultimately what happened, it was dropped into the general fund; the vast majority of them (dollars) were.”
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, made a final plea for the Senate to vote the bill down.
“Unfortunately, it seems the train for a sane public policy is not the train leaving the station,” Pinsky said. “I think our only hope for a sane public policy is the last stop, which I hope is across the hall” in the House of Delegates.
Pinsky’s hope appears to be less likely to come through than in previous years. Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has said both Republicans and Democrats in the chamber would like to see a floor vote on the slots issue — something that hasn’t happened in the House the previous two attempts.
The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote on the governor’s bill by Wednesday. The committee could make a wide range of revisions, including changing the number of slot machines allowed in the state and their sites.
The committee is considering changes to the governor’s bill that would devote a smaller percentage of slots revenue directly to public school construction, but increase aid to local governments, said Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s.
The House attitude toward slots seems to be thawing, said Miller.
“I think there’s a different feeling over there this year,” Miller said. “But it’s going to be nip-and-tuck because it’s going to require the cooperation between the governor and the speaker in terms of getting the votes together and getting the bill out of the House.”
The Senate was to have voted on the bill Thursday. But GOP members had it delayed one day, in part to call attention to another divisive bill being heard Friday in the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee.
That bill would alter the appointment process for the State Elections Administrator. Democrats said the move would depoliticize oversight of elections; Republicans said it would give Democrats too much power in appointing an administrator.