Baltimore Sun

Gambling industry puts their money on state lobbyists

Gambling-related businesses continue to hire high-priced Annapolis lobbyists, hoping to position themselves for profits if Maryland legalizes slot machines, disclosure forms showed yesterday.

A partial review of annual lobbyist filings showed that horse breeders, hotel and casino developers and operators, lottery-machine makers and track owners spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on fees to some of the capital's best-connected lobbyists during this year's General Assembly session.

For the third year since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was elected, the Assembly did not adopt slot machine legislation, although the House and Senate passed versions of a bill. Differences between the two chambers were not reconciled before the Assembly adjourned in mid-April. Slots have been the governor's top legislative priority.

But the industry didn't give up. Gambling-related interests spent nearly $600,000 on 23 lobbyists whose disclosure forms were available yesterday at the office of the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

Yesterday was the deadline for the more than 700 lobbyists registered in Maryland to submit reports showing how much they earned for the six months ending April 30, a period which includes the Assembly session.

Filings from some of the top Annapolis lobbyists who represent gambling interests, such as partners in the firm of Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, were not immediately available, so the sum attributable to the slots battle is sure to go up. The Rifkin firm lobbies on behalf of the Maryland Jockey Club, Laurel Racing Association, and lottery-machine makers IGT.

'Arms race'

"Maryland is the next domino they want to fall after Pennsylvania," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which monitors campaign spending by industries. "If you look at other states, Pennsylvania got slots. West Virginia is talking about table gaming. It's like an arms race between the states, and campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures are the weapons to win."

In the 2004 session, gambling businesses spent more than $2.3 million on lobbying fees and entertainment. The ethics commission's latest annual report, for the year ending Oct. 31, 2003, showed at least $2.7 million in industry spending.

Total lobbyist spending in all areas was $30 million, according to the 2003 annual report.

Bragging rights

This year's forms show familiar names among the top earners. And earnings lead to bragging rights in Annapolis, with high earners often noting that success as they solicit clients.

J. William Pitcher, who represents insurance clients, health care associations and other businesses, earned $670,258 during the session, his report showed. His gambling clients included hotel developer Camden Plaza, Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association and Spielo Manufacturing, a Canada-based maker of gambling equipment.

But Pitcher said Spielo has since halted its presence in Maryland - which he said could be a harbinger of an industry retrenchment.

"They are not going to be retaining me to push it any more," Pitcher said. "I don't think anybody is really encouraged about slots, the way [House Speaker Michael E. Busch] put an ultimatum on the table."

Dennis Rasmussen, former state senator and Baltimore County executive, earned $584,148 during the six-month period that ended in April. The Ocean City Chamber of Commerce paid him $15,000 to keep tabs on the gambling debate.

Bruce C. Bereano collected $569,170, with clients including Frank Moran and Sons bingo operators and the Maryland Horse Park.

Gary Alexander got $530,142 from clients that included track investors Luk Flats, which paid him $44,000.

The state's medical malpractice debate, which led to a special legislative session in December, also drove lobbyist earnings.

A partial review of fees paid by hospitals, insurers and the state medical association showed lobbyists earned at least $1.2 million from clients involved in the malpractice issue.