Mathias Calls Slots Debate ‘A Disaster’

BERLIN – The emotional roller coaster ride that the Maryland slots issue has become this week took a long drop from a high peak yesterday when a House subcommittee reversed a decision to remove Ocean Downs from the equation and moved forward instead with a plan to keep the Berlin racetrack in the proposal.

A clearly harried Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) said between sessions yesterday what had looked so promising just hours earlier had begun to unravel.

“It’s become a disaster,” he said. “We had a good night last night [Wednesday], but as we move forward at this juncture, the news is not good. They’ve removed Frederick and re-inserted Ocean Downs.”

An important House subcommittee provided a brief moment of relief late Wednesday when it approved a slots bill amended to remove Ocean Downs from the list of five proposed sites for slot machine gambling, replacing it with a proposed venue in Frederick in Western Maryland. Yesterday morning, the same committee rescinded its vote on the amended bill and passed instead the exact version approved by the full Senate last week, which includes Ocean Downs among the five locations across the state identified as future homes to as many as 15,000 slot machines.

Shortly thereafter, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill by a vote of 13-7, sending the debate to the floor of the full House late yesterday. Mathias said he was scrambling to prepare an amendment to the bill to exclude Ocean Downs from consideration based on the recent formal opposition voiced by the County Commissioners and the long-standing opposition of the county’s municipalities, but did not get the amendment in front of the committee before they voted.

Instead, Mathias was preparing to go before the full House late yesterday with his amendment in hand to make known his displeasure with the inclusion of Ocean Downs. His remaining hope was to filibuster on the House floor long enough to allow those Delegates still on the fence not to approve the bill as written with Ocean Downs still in the proposal.

“I’m getting ready to go to the floor of the House for a fight,” he said yesterday before going back into session. “Everybody knows I’m extremely concerned and deeply disturbed Ocean Downs is still in the bill despite the opposition from the elected officials in the county and the municipalities. I’m going to have to draw on my best oratorical skills to derail this bill as written.”

The House late yesterday was considering only the segment of the legislation requiring a statewide referendum on slots during the general election next November and not the nuts and bolts portion outlining how slots would be implemented and how the revenue would be distributed.

“The unfortunate thing is, we’re now only considering the bill that calls for a statewide referendum and not the bill that outlines the details of the proposal,” Mathias said. “We’re no longer talking about who’s going to get the money and how this is going to be implemented. It’s coming down to the straight question about the referendum.”

Should state lawmakers approve the bill authorizing a referendum of slots next year, Mathias said no consideration will be given to the will of voters in individual jurisdictions. Instead, as anticipated all along, the success or failure of the referendum will be based on votes of the electorate across the state.

“The reality is, there will not be an opt-out provision for any of the subdivisions under consideration as destinations,” he said. “I’ve been told by the governor and the respective leaders of the House and Senate a majority vote will carry the day. If a simple majority of the voters of the state approve the bill as written, Ocean Downs will be one of the destinations.”

While the House Ways and Means Committee approved the exact bill approved by the Senate last week, attempts were made to amend the bill put in front of the entire House late yesterday. From the beginning of the slots debate several years ago, there was never any intention to expand gambling beyond the gaming machines, but late yesterday amendments were being put forth to expand the activities at the identified locations to full casino gambling, according to Mathias.

“Opponents talk about slots being the gateway to full casinos and that’s in danger of happening,” he said. “Already there is language being considered to allow table gambling, poker, blackjack and craps. None of that was in consideration before.”

In addition, another amendment being considered would increase the licensees share and reduce the state’s share of the revenue. The governor’s original bill called for a 30 percent-70 percent split with the licensees getting the former and the state getting the latter, but an amendment floated yesterday would change the percentages to 33-67.

The bill providing a constitutional amendment authorizing a slots referendum passed the Senate last week by a 31-15 vote, but will need a three-fifths majority to survive a vote by the full House, meaning 85 Delegates need to approve the plan. As of late yesterday, it was not certain if the bill had the votes needed to send the legislation to the governor’s desk for approval.