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Md. casino task force says no Possibility remains for slot machines at state racetracks


An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly identified the House of Delegates committee chaired by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's. He chairs the Judiciary Committee.

The Sun regrets the error.

Citing public opposition and fears that casinos would hurt existing businesses, a state task force urged the governor and General Assembly yesterday not to permit them in Maryland.

By a vote of 7-0, with two abstentions, the task force recommendation appeared to all but assure that the legislature will oppose casinos during its annual 90-day session that begins January.

"I'm very, very pleased, extremely so," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening in reaction to the vote. Mr. Glendening, a casino critic, said he saw no scenario under which a bill legalizing Las Vegas-style casinos would pass the legislature next year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. agreed that casino companies face an uphill battle in the General Assembly.

"That report will certainly be considered, and in my opinion, weigh very heavily in terms of whether any legislation passes or fails," said Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Although voting against casinos, the panel carefully worded its recommendation in a way that appeared to leave it neutral on the issue of legalizing slot machines at Maryland's race courses.

Two Delaware tracks plan to begin operating about 1,200 slot machines later this year, and the managers of Maryland's thoroughbred and harness race courses say the Delaware slots will lure business and horses away from the state.

Mr. Miller said the slot machine issue could be a big one during the legislative session. He also said that lawmakers may have to help the racing industry compete by allowing tax breaks, Sunday racing, off-track betting and simulcast wagering.

Yesterday's vote culminated five months of meetings and hearings around the state in which the nine-member panel tried to determine whether casinos would help or hurt Maryland's economy. Although the commission will meet again Nov. 27 to approve a final report, yesterday's vote was viewed as its critical decision.

Task force members cited various reasons for their opposition to casinos. Chairman Joseph D. Tydings, a former U.S. senator, said he was convinced that casinos would take dollars from existing businesses, including the horse racing industry.

Former Baltimore City Solicitor Benjamin L. Brown said drug abuse would rise "tremendously" if a casino were built in Baltimore.

And then there was the inescapable fact that the majority of people who wrote to the task force and signed up to testify were against casinos.

Two members, state Democratic Dels. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. of Prince George's County and Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County, abstained from voting, saying that the panel had not investigated the gambling issue thoroughly. Mr. Vallario chairs the House Appropriations Committee; Ms. Hixson, the Ways and Means Committee.

Representatives from the gambling industry tried to put the best light on yesterday's vote, calling it a "setback" and saying that they would press bills in the General Assembly next year.

Casino lobbyists also said that they were heartened that two key legislators, Mr. Vallario and Ms. Hixson, did not take a position and that the task force did not oppose slot machines at racetracks and off-track betting parlors.

"Half a loaf is always better that no loaf, and today I think we got a half a loaf," said Gerard E. Evans, an Annapolis-based lobbyist for Harveys Casino Resorts.

In addition to casino opponents, one of the winners yesterday appeared to be Joseph A. De Francis, the owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses. Initially, the task force planned to vote against any new form of gambling in the state. However, Ms. Hixson urged Mr. Tydings to narrow the recommendation specifically to casinos.

The change drew a smile from Mr. De Francis, who said it clearly was designed to allow for the possibility of slot machines at the tracks.

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