Bills aim to take slots out of constitution
Ironically, voters would have to agree to removal
ANNAPOLIS Several lawmakers want to take slot machine gambling out of the state constitution to make it easier to expand the type of gaming allowed in Maryland and to add more locations and terminals than what is written into law.
"The constitution is for things that make your heart sing, that you really care about," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton, who introduced legislation Thursday to repeal the slots article from the state's top legal document. "It's not for the vice amendment, for issues that could be more appropriately handled in the state code."
Removing the state's gaming program from the constitution would enable table games, such as poker, blackjack and roulette, to be implemented without asking voters to approve or reject them. It also would let state lawmakers approve additional sites for gambling than the five currently allowed by law and go beyond the 4,750 slot machines that can be placed at those parlors.
A similar proposal would remove slots from the constitution, but require approval by a supermajority of lawmakers in each chamber three-fifths of the membership of both bodies. That bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate.
"Let's go on about the business of gaming," said Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Dist. 40) of Baltimore, who will sponsor the legislation. "We have already decided that we're going to be in that business."
Ironically, voters would have to approve a ballot referendum in order to remove slots from the constitution.
The current restrictions make it harder for Maryland to remain competitive with surrounding states that have introduced casino-style gambling, Pugh said.
"Let's remove ourselves from being the hole in the doughnut," she said.
Pennsylvania and Delaware, which allow table games in their gambling facilities, do not require voter approval to make changes to their gaming programs. West Virginia, which also has table games, needed to put them on the ballot first.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, a proponent of slots who is critical of it being written into the constitution, said he would support the measure to repeal the slots article.
But Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis is less enthusiastic.
"I don't know why there would be a groundswell to do that," he said. "In general, I think if we spend more time solving the problems of the day than on gaming, we'd all be better off."
Keeping slots in the constitution protects the investments made by current owners who don't have to worry about encroachment, he said.
The purchase last week of Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County by Penn National Gaming has intensified talk of allowing gaming there, which could not be voted on until at least 2012.
And legislation in previous years that sought to allow gaming at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is expected to be introduced again this year.
Other modifications, such as changing the tax rate or allowing beverage or food vouchers for extended play, can be done without seeking voter approval.
Still, Smigiel argued that no part of gaming regulations should have been put in the constitution to begin with.
"In Annapolis, every year we fail to do what we should do and [we have to go back and] fix it," he said. "We didn't do it right the first time."