04/12/2004 12:00AM

Slots dead for this year

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Proposals to legalize slot-machine gambling in Maryland died on Monday in a House committee for the second straight year, dashing the hopes of supporters for a last-minute accord.

By a vote of 19-2, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed legislation, which would have legalized slots at six Maryland sites, including three racetracks. Then, by a vote of 21-0, the committee rejected the version of the governor's bill that had been amended by the Senate.

"It's over for now, but it's not over forever," said committee vice chairwoman Anne Healey, a Democrat. She said the failure of the legislature to either pass slots or other forms of revenue for the state leaves future budgets in peril.

"We've done one-time fixes but we have not fixed it," she said.

The vote came on the busy last day of the 90-day state legislative session as lawmakers rushed to complete work before a midnight deadline for adjournment.

Ehrlich had proposed 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and three other sites in the state as a way of raising $1 billion in revenue. His opponents, who included the speaker of the House, Michael Busch, said that the money would be better raised through a mix of taxes.

Ways and Means chairwoman Sheila Hixson blamed the failure of the slots legislation on Ehrlich, saying his refusal to budge on taxes doomed the proposal. In recent weeks, Ehrlich had said he would compromise on elements of the slots proposal but said he would not consider any plan that raised taxes.

Several lawmakers said they expected the issue would return next year.

"This will be coming back to us, I'm sure," said Del. Nancy J. King, a Democrat. "We have to find a way to fill this budget deficit."

Horseracing leaders were hopeful that the legislation would be passed in order to provide an infusion of money to boost purses and fix up the state's aging racetracks. Racing officials have said that Maryland racing is being hurt by competition from racetracks in states where slot-machine gambling is legal, such as West Virginia and Delaware.

Opponents of slots in Maryland were elated by the Monday votes. W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-slots groups, said, "This ends debate in the General Assembly this year. This session ends tonight. It's over."