ANNAPOLIS – Clarence “Tiger” Davis stared long and hard at the voting scoreboard Friday, unsure whether his colleagues in the House of Delegates had ended their two-year embargo on slot-machine gambling.
The vote had been taken minutes before; the red and green lights looked evenly split. But the final roll call had not been taken, and some delegates had not recorded their votes.
When numbers lit up — 71-66 — Davis, D-Baltimore, and his fellow slots supporters let out a triumphant roar. The bill had received the exact number needed for passage.
The tally meant that for the first time in three attempts, a bill to legalize slot machines and turn revenues into school buildings had passed the House, the chief obstacle. If enacted, the slots bill would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding for the public school system.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who saw his previous two efforts to legalize slots extinguished in the House Ways and Means Committee, did his best to keep a straight face for the cameras after the vote.
“I’m pleased, obviously,” he said. “Pleased, I guess with the caveat (that) now the real work begins.”
However, James “Chip” DiPaula, Ehrlich’s budget secretary and his most fervent slots booster, beamed over what is shaping up to be a major win for the administration.
“Can’t help it. Can’t help it,” DiPaula said.
But the administration’s elation could be short-lived.
After the vote, House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, told reporters the bill’s narrow passage left little wiggle room for Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.
“The governor and the president of the Senate are either going to have to accept this bill, or I don’t believe there will be any expansion of gambling in the state of Maryland,” Busch said.
The House and Senate now will trade versions of the bill. Each chamber will likely amend the other’s bill. If so, a conference committee of members of both chambers must then try to draft a final bill for Ehrlich’s signature.
The House bill differs from the Senate version in that it allows fewer machines — 9,500 — and specifies counties where they may be located: Anne Arundel, Allegany, Frederick and Harford. The Senate would allow 15,500 video slot machines in venues selected by a special panel.
Prince George’s County and Baltimore City, home to several major horse racetracks, were dropped from the list of potential sites during sub-committee meetings in an effort to gain support from their delegates.
But those jurisdictions would benefit most from slots because the bill calls for local-aid grants to be doled out in proportion to lottery sales. Prince George’s and Baltimore residents spend the most money per capita on lottery tickets.
“I do believe there is further room for improvement” in the House bill, Ehrlich said.
He’ll be “flexible” in negotiating with the Legislature, Ehrlich said. But he still held “concerns” about the membership of the licensing commission and was still opposed to placing slots at Timonium in Baltimore County and Ocean Downs in Worcester County.
The vote came after more than an hour of last-chance debate. The chamber also spent Thursday evening debating the bill, but made no major changes to it.
To the surprise of none, Delegate Peter Franchot leaped out of his chair as soon as Busch opened the floor for debate Friday.
Franchot, D-Montgomery, one of slots’ most vocal opponents, warned lawmakers that slots approval would invite the gambling industry to bring casinos to Maryland.
“Does anyone in this room actually think the most powerful lobby in the country will allow a bill that excludes our three largest jurisdictions?” Franchot asked.
Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, said the bill was “the best that we could do” to satisfy the most delegates.
“Are there political reasons behind it? Yes. The speaker has led this piece of legislation along with Ways and Means,” she said on the floor. “We are here to help the speaker. We are here to make money for the state of Maryland.”
Until the negotiations begin — if they begin — Ehrlich said he wouldn’t get into specifics about changes he’d like to see in the final bill.
“Let us just have our little victory here before we begin to speculate on what happens down the road.”