03/24/2003 12:00AM

Maryland senate OK's slots

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. - The Maryland Senate voted narrowly Saturday night to legalize slot machines at four racetracks in a measure that would raise an estimated $700 million a year for public education in the state.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has already endorsed the bill, but it faces strong opposition in the House of Delegates, where Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) has vowed to kill it unless he wins major concessions from the governor.

The slots debate has bitterly divided the General Assembly, and the pressure to cut a deal on the bill is expected to rise as time runs out on the session, scheduled to adjourn April 7. Despite heavy lobbying by Ehrlich, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D), and racetrack owners, the bill squeaked by the Senate on a 25-21 vote, with one abstention, as several senators switched sides at the last minute.

The Senate bill would permit 10,500 slots at three racetracks: Pimlico, Laurel, and Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track. A fourth track scheduled to open in 2006 in Allegany County would get 1,000 machines.