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|Logjam over Maryland slots may break up|
|12 Aug 2004|
Logjam over Maryland slots may break upLogjam over Maryland slots may break upHouse Speaker Michael Busch has offered a plan to authorize as many as 13,000 slot machines at up to six locations across the state, with voters to be given the final say over expanding legalized gambling in Maryland.Las Vegas, NV August 12, 2004 -- House Speaker Michael Busch has offered a plan to authorize as many as 13,000 slot machines at up to six locations across the state, with voters to be given the final say over expanding legalized gambling in Maryland.
Busch said Friday that House leaders will insist that slot machines be legalized only with a constitutional amendment that would require approval of voters.
Other than that, "every detail of location and structure in the bill is open to good faith negotiation," the speaker said in a letter to Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
Ehrlich said the plan presented by Busch on behalf of the House leadership is "the first positive step in two years" on the slots issue.
"There's still a long way to go and we're making progress and hopefully this will have an impact," the governor said during an interview at Fort Meade, where he visited volunteers putting together care packages for troops fighting in Iraq.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, sounded a more pessimistic note, saying the plan "appears to be just another different way to kill the bill."
"You never say never, but it's going to be up to the governor," Miller said.
The constitutional amendment offered by Busch contains a limit of 13,000 machines and lists locations in Allegany, Frederick, Dorchester, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties as potential sites.
A companion bill that would have to be approved by the legislature, but not by voters, sets out other conditions, including requiring companies that want to operate slot machine facilities to submit competitive bids to try to get the best possible deal for the state.
"This is a clear, clean and open process" that will provide the most money for the state, Busch said.
Under the House plan, about half of the proceeds would go to public schools, with most of the rest split among the companies operating the facilities, the racing industry and local governments.
Paul Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said the governor still thinks amending the constitution is the wrong way to go, but he said the staff would be working over the weekend on the "50-page bill ... with some very complex language" to see if an agreement can be worked out.
"There is reason to be upbeat," Schurick said.
The governor and legislative leaders will be operating on a tight time schedule even if they can resolve differences over sticky issues such as the locations, how proceeds will be divided and who will compete for licenses.
Busch said an agreement would need to be reached within the next 10 days to allow time to call a special session and pass an amendment in time to get it on the ballot.
Busch, who played the key role in killing slot machine bills the last two years, said he would vote in the legislature to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot, even though he would vote against it in November.
"I don't think it (slot machines) is good public policy," he said.
But the speaker sees a voter referendum as a way to dispense of an issue that dominated the last two sessions of the General Assembly, and likely will do so when the legislature returns next January.
One of the advantages of setting the locations and number of machines in the constitution is there can be no future expansion of gambling to include casinos or add new slots locations without again putting the question to voters, Busch said.
"We don't believe in the long run the citizens of Maryland want slots in every community in bars and restaurants," he said.
The speaker's plan has little in common with the governor's bill that was approved by the Senate in February but killed by the House Ways and Means Committee in April.
That bill would have authorized up to 15,500 slot machines at up to six locations, including as many as three racetracks. The only racetrack in the House bill is Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.
Under the governor's plan, slot machine facilities would be owned and operated by private companies instead of being built and owned by the state and then leased to private corporations to manage.
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