Another gamble on slots for Md.? Lawmakers insist tour of Delaware Park was simple fact-finding trip

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STANTON, Del. -- For an issue that is supposed to be dead, the idea of putting slot machines in racetracks attracted a whole lot of attention from some powerful Maryland lawmakers yesterday.

About 20 members of the House of Delegates -- including its top leaders, Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, Ways and Means Chairman Sheila E. Hixson and Majority Leader John Adams Hurson -- got a firsthand look at the glittering rows of one-armed bandits at Delaware Park, a racetrack near Wilmington.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening promised in August to veto any legislation permitting slot machines at Maryland tracks, and legislators insisted yesterday's trip was a simple fact-finding tour. But the high-level interest in Delaware's largest slot machine operation struck gambling opponents as noteworthy.

"It doesn't sound dead, does it?" said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican and leading gambling opponent in Annapolis. "I find it troubling. A lot of strategic moves seem to be going on."

Once a veritable backwater in thoroughbred racing, Delaware Park got a stallion's kick of good fortune from its statehouse last year: 1,000 slot machines that have since brought in millions of dollars in revenue.

"It seems incredibly smooth running," said Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "There's a calm here I didn't expect."

Maryland racing officials have been pleading with lawmakers in Annapolis to give them slots to compete against Delaware. Those hopes were dashed when Glendening declared he would veto any such bill as long as he is in office.

House leaders quizzed their hosts yesterday on matters of finance, regulation and politics. One of the first questions asked of Delaware Park's owner: How did you overcome your governor's opposition?

"This is a conservative state. Most people didn't think we would get it done," said William Rickman Jr., the track's president and CEO.

"[But] we were within striking distance of an override" of a potential veto by Gov. Thomas R. Carper, he said. "That hadn't happened to a Delaware governor in 17 years."

'We may introduce a bill'

Hixson, who arranged the tour of Delaware Park and Dover Downs, which also has slot machines, said Glendening's position will not dictate how the legislature acts on the issue.

"There are still three branches of government," she said. "I'll see how my committee feels, but we may introduce a bill."

But Taylor said he doesn't expect legislation to move in the House as long as the governor refuses to sign it. While the Allegany County Democrat has voiced support for legalized slots in the past, he said he doesn't want to force members to cast such a controversial vote as a "futile" exercise.

"The issue is off the table in the House of Delegates until the governor puts it back on the table," the speaker said.

Nevertheless, some delegates said they expect a bill legalizing slot machines at Maryland tracks to get serious consideration in the next legislative session beginning in January.

"The governor has been known to flip-flop," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat.

Daily purse has doubled

Maryland lawmakers also expressed a keen interest in the $30 million Delaware Park is expected to generate in taxes this year. And with income from slot machines, the track has doubled its daily purse at a time when Pimlico's is declining.

Earlier this week, Taylor pledged to push for a 10 percent cut in personal income taxes over three years. The revenue generated by slot machines might be one way to do that and still balance the budget, several delegates noted.

Rickman, a Montgomery County resident, told legislators that religious groups and the governor were the main opponents of bringing slot machines to Delaware tracks. The bill was twice vetoed before it passed, he said.

"I really think eventually there will be some kind of [slot machine] gambling in Maryland," Rickman said.

Alan M. Rifkin, a lobbyist for the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, said Maryland racing interests were not invited on the field trip. He said he hoped legislators would recognize the impact of Delaware racing on the state.

"From the perspective of the racing industry, the importance of what's happening in Delaware is anything but dead," he said.

Pub Date: 10/10/96

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