ANNAPOLIS – A House subcommittee voted Wednesday to cut Worcester County out of a bill to legalize slot machines in the state, inserting Frederick County instead.
The full Ways and Means Committee was expected to meet Thursday morning to take up the slots package, part of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan to bridge a $1.7 billion budget shortfall, and send it to the full House later in the day.
Delegate Frank Turner, chairman of the Finance Resource Subcommittee, said Frederick County probably would generate more revenue than a site in Worcester, which would likely be at the Ocean Downs racetrack.
He said a Worcester site might only be busy during the Eastern Shore tourist season, while a Frederick site might attract people who would otherwise go to play the slots in Charles Town, W.Va.
“If we’re going to have (slots), it’s important to have a good product,” said Turner, D-Howard, Wednesday afternoon. “Frederick makes our state competitive.”
Earlier Wednesday, House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said he was working toward securing the votes for the slots plan, which would go before voters in a referendum next November. As a constitutional amendment, the plan requires a three-fifths majority of the House, or 85 votes.
O’Malley said slots, which have dominated discussion in the legislature for years, have been the “monkey wrench in the cogs of consensus and compromise” and said he hoped the House would give the voters the final word on the issue.
Both O’Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said they hoped the House did not fiddle with O’Malley’s original proposal, which passed the Senate largely unchanged last week.
Miller, D-Calvert, said he did not want Frederick County as a potential slots location because the Senate had not discussed that possibility. But he did not think adding Frederick would be a deal breaker either.
“I don’t think anything kills the slots plan in the Senate,” said Miller, a longtime slots supporter.
O’Malley said he was grateful the Senate basically “passed the bill we gave them. I hope the House might do the same thing.”
Besides changing the proposed slots locations, however, Turner’s subcommittee also cut the maximum number of slot machines allowed in the state from 15,000 to 14,000 and voted to put a proposed parlor on Interstate 95 in either Harford or Cecil counties. The governor’s original slots plan only included Cecil County.
“We’re trying to make their product a better product,” Turner said after his subcommittee met Tuesday.
The other slots locations proposed by O’Malley — Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Allegany counties — were adopted by the Finance Resources subcommittee.
The subcommittee did adopt the major Senate change to the bill, increasing the amount that licensed slots operators will collect from the machines from 30 to 33 percent.
The slots plan is one of the last major hurdles as the General Assembly tries to wrap up the special legislative session, which Miller and Busch said Wednesday could end by the weekend.
Both O’Malley and Busch were confident the slots plan would eventually pass the House, but Miller said the governor and House speaker have “a tough task” ahead of them. The House historically has been more opposed to slots than the Senate.
On that point at least, Turner seemed to agree with the Senate president.
“It’s hard getting 85 votes,” Turner said. “It’s hard enough to get” a simple majority.
— CNS reporters Andy Zieminski and Kenneth R. Fletcher contributed to this report.
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