The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machines bill yesterday -- but not before weakening Baltimore's ability to insist the state pay for road improvements around Pimlico Race Course.
Mayor Martin O'Malley said the one-word amendment was serious enough that it would force him to oppose the bill.
"There's a huge cost there on infrastructure, and the city cannot be put in the position of paying these costs," O'Malley said.
Before clearing the bill for a final vote today, senators turned back more than a dozen hostile amendments offered by gambling opponents.
None gathered more than 18 votes in the 47-member chamber, except for those agreed to by proponents.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose iron-fisted control of his chamber was evident in yesterday's roll calls, said after yesterday's session that "we're a long way from home."
"We've got to pass the bill," the Prince George's County Democrat said. "Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in both chambers and on the second floor" -- a reference to the governor's office.
The most significant amendment to win approval -- the one on local transportation costs -- slipped through without discussion after the bill's floor leader said he would accept the change.
The seemingly innocuous change, proposed by Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, affected a clause saying: "The state shall pay for the reasonable transportation costs to ... mitigate the impact on the communities in the immediate proximity to the [slots] facility."
Middleton's amendment changed the "shall" to "may" -- making the spending discretionary for the state instead of obligatory.
None of the six city senators appeared to recognize the impact of the amendment -- which was approved without dissent.
"That 'may' doesn't do a thing," Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said afterward.
But Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, said there is a significant difference.
"The 'shall' is a mandate. 'May' is an encouragement," said the Charles County Democrat, who opposes expanded gambling.
Middleton expressed concern that the "shall" clause would force the state to give racetrack-related transportation projects priority over those in other parts of Maryland.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a lawyer who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said "shall" could give a jurisdiction grounds to sue if the state didn't cover certain costs, but "may" likely would not. The Montgomery County Democrat said that from his point of view, the change improves the bill -- which he opposes.
O'Malley said he was "disappointed" that city senators didn't protest the change.
"Something like this would cause me to become very, very opposed," the mayor said.
His administration has estimated that a 3,000-slot machine racetrack casino at Pimlico would cost the city an additional $65 million for transportation infrastructure. The version of the bill up for a vote today by the Senate would allow an even larger facility with 3,500 machines.