Annapolis gearing up for new slots fight

The debate over slot machines in Maryland begins anew this week, when the state Senate launches discussions on the third iteration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gambling plan.

But the real excitement comes later, after House Speaker Michael E. Busch and leaders in the House of Delegates settle on a strategy for the gambling issue.

For two years, the Senate has approved versions of a slots-at-racetracks proposal, and it is expected to do so again this year. A hearing on the governor's bill, intended to aid the horse racing industry and generate money for school operations and construction, is scheduled Wednesday.

"I anticipate it will pass with very little fanfare, for the third year in a row," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.

Similar legislation has died twice in the House. A year ago, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected the bill on the final day of the session.

Since then, Ehrlich and other Republicans have repeatedly criticized Busch and House Democrats for obstructing the governor's wishes, despite a flurry of activity last summer when leaders came close to putting slots on the ballot as a referendum issue.

Opinion polls show that more than 50 percent of Maryland voters favor legalizing slot machines, although support drops when they are asked whether they would want them near their homes.

Busch has suggested that the timing of House decisions will be different this year.

"We will try to have a timely hearing, and eventually a vote," Busch said. "But I can't promise you it comes out" of committee.

Busch has not said whether he wants the House to vote on a version of a plan he advocated last year - publicly owned slots facilities along interstate highways - or on a version closer to the Ehrlich plan that could die on the House floor.

The governor's plan would allow 15,500 slot machines at six locations - four at racetracks and two along the Interstate 95 corridor.

With Ehrlich saying that he does not expect a different result for his legislation this year, and Busch not indicating that he has dropped his opposition, it is unclear how much attention slots will get.

For now, things are relatively quiet. Gambling interests spent $2.3 million on lobbying during the 2004 session but have not been much of a presence at the State House this year.

The lobbying is "not as intense as you would think," said Del. K. Bennett Bozman, an Eastern Shore Democrat and member of the Ways and Means Committee, which will vote on the bills. "People are still drawing lines in the sand, figuring out what all the bills are going to say."

'A unified industry'

Beneath the surface, however, industry representatives are laying the foundation for approval. And heavyweight players, including the family of Peter G. Angelos, which is negotiating to buy Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, are waiting to emerge.

Last week, racing interests and track owners released a joint plan to improve horse racing in Maryland - with and without slots. Racing industry in-fighting has contributed to defeat in the past, many have said.

"We're a unified industry," said James L. Galiano, vice president of operations for the Maryland Jockey Club. "We've given a lot of thought to how the industry can grow."

Today, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association plans to introduce its version of gambling legislation, which would authorize 16,500 machines at 10 sites. The Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft tracks would get 2,500 slot machines each; Ocean Downs in Worcester County and two other licensed but unbuilt harness tracks would get 1,000 each; and 1,500 machines each would go to four nontrack sites.

Under the plan, slots would be allowed only if local governments approved them.

Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist for the breeders association, said the approval of slots last year in Pennsylvania makes Maryland approval imperative.

"If something is not done to help the Maryland industry, there will be long-term losses that we will not be able to recover from for a generation," he said.

Bozman has introduced a bill that would allow slot machines in Pocomoke City and require William Rickman Jr. to relocate his Ocean Downs harness track near Ocean City to that location.

Pocomoke City "was a very thriving town during World War II. It's very heavily traveled," Bozman said. "We're trying to capture Virginia people."

The bill before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Wednesday is almost identical to the plan that passed the Senate last year.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former two-term governor, supports the idea of passing contentious legislation early in the 90-day session so it does not become ensnared in the give-and-take of last-minute negotiations.

"The slot machine bill should be voted on and passed by the middle of the session," Schaefer said. "Get it over with."

While Ehrlich and others say a slots program could generate up to $800 million a year to save Maryland's racing industry and help pay for schools, the financial argument is growing weaker.

The state's finances are growing stronger, and the governor submitted his third consecutive balanced budget last month, which includes a reserve fund with more than $200 million more than is required. Last week, Busch proposed using some of the reserve for school construction, countering the governor's latest justification for slots.

W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist representing an anti-slots coalition, is preparing for a battle but is not sure how intense it will be.

"You know what they say about slots bills?" Carter said. "It's like snow in Annapolis. There's a lot in February, but they're all gone by April."

Other key players

Besides Busch and his leadership team, key figures in the slots debate include delegates in Prince George's County and Baltimore, two majority-black jurisdictions that under the governor's plan could be home to two slots facilities each.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the city's House delegation, said she opposes installing 3,500 slot machines at Pimlico, as the governor proposed. But she is open to a smaller facility.

"You can't balance the budget of the state on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens," Marriott said, referring to the impact in the city's Park Heights community.

Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, chairwoman of the House delegation from Prince George's, said her suburban Washington colleagues are not being heavily courted. She said Prince George's legislators have established criteria for their support for a gambling bill, but industry representatives don't seem interested in taking them seriously.

"We believe there should be minority awards. We believe it should not be just slots. We believe it should be some destination-type venture. We also believe there should be local control," Howard said. "They ask for input, and then they put it aside."

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