Tomorrow's vote by a Maryland task force could seal the defeat of casino gambling legislation in Annapolis for the coming year, according to lawmakers and others.
After months of hearings, the state's task force on casinos, chaired by former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, is scheduled to vote on its major recommendations to the governor and legislature. Mr. Tydings has predicted the panel will recommend against.
A "no" vote would make it all but impossible to get a casino bill through the legislature during the session that begins in January, key lawmakers said last week.
"I think it will make it very difficult for it to pass," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "Already you have an environment in which things are stacked against the prospect of casino gambling."
But many observers also say that if the General Assembly rejects casinos next year, the issue could well return for consideration in 1997.
And even in next year's session, the legislature could face pressure to allow slot machine wagering at the state's horse tracks and off-track betting parlors.
Earlier this fall, some lobbyists on both sides of the issue were quietly predicting that the Tydings panel would endorse proposals to allow Las Vegas-style casinos or riverboats at several sites around the state.
But after wading through a stack of studies, some of which offered wildly differing assessments of the benefits of casinos, a majority of the task force seems unconvinced.
A negative vote from the panel would come at a time when political momentum has been against casinos. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he has serious reservations. Nearly all the Republicans in the House of Delegates have vowed opposition. And polls show most Marylanders don't want more gambling here.
The legislature's presiding officers, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., have declined to take a public stand on casino gambling and last week would not speculate on the impact of the Tydings vote.
But even some casino lobbyists say a negative recommendation from the panel would be a setback, at least in the short term.
Publicly, some lobbyists say tomorrow's vote is just a step in a process that isn't over. "Public policy in this state is set by the legislature, and they haven't spoken on this issue yet," said Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis-based lobbyist for Harveys Casino Resorts.
Others, however, seem to acknowledge that the time is not right to sell casinos to Maryland. They suggest government leaders might be more receptive after they've felt the effects of coming federal budget cuts.
"When the tough times do hit, I believe the state will be looking for increasing revenues regardless of what the Tydings commission reports," said Ira C. Cooke, a lobbyist for two casino companies.
And if neighboring states legalize casinos first, the pressure on Maryland to do the same would be intense, proponents say.
For now, casino representatives and some members of the horse racing industry are focusing on trying to bring slot machine wagering to the state's horse tracks, several sources said.
This year, two Delaware horse tracks plan to begin operating about 1,200 slots, which could lure fans and horses away from Maryland race courses. Joseph A. De Francis and Bally Entertainment, who run the state's thoroughbred and harness tracks, are considering asking the legislature to approve slot machines next year.
Mr. De Francis, who owns Pimlico and Laurel race courses, has been meeting with casino interests to discuss a potential partnership.
In one plan, gambling companies would be involved in a slot machine operation at the tracks, and possibly at off-track betting parlors around Maryland.
Such an arrangement could help the tracks compete with Delaware while casino companies would get a piece of the Maryland gambling market.
Mr. Glendening recently seemed to leave the door ajar for considering such a proposal to preserve Maryland racing.
"If in fact, there was a major problem with competition coming from elsewhere because slot machines are there, then I think we'd have to at least look at it," Mr. Glendening said.
The governor added, however, "Even if we looked at it, we'd still have to ask that threshold question: Is this about strengthening racing or is it about back-door entry to casinos?"