Miller expects slots bill changes


Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday he expects Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to make substantial "adjustments" to the administration's poorly received slot machine legislation, including possible changes in the way the gambling profits are distributed.

Miller, who met with Ehrlich yesterday morning, said he expects the governor to announce his changes to the bill in about two weeks.

"When he does, I will join him at the press conference," Miller said.

The clear implication of Miller's remarks is that the governor has agreed to take responsibility for potentially unpopular changes to the distribution formula -- albeit with the Senate president's blessing. Earlier, Ehrlich aides indicated they would let the General Assembly make the changes.

The Senate president, a staunch backer of slots at Maryland racetracks, is working to salvage a bill that has been severely criticized by the racetrack industry, horse breeders, local governments and leading lawmakers.

But Miller's efforts were complicated by reports of more than $500,000 in gambling industry contributions -- including $200,000 from the owners of Pimlico and Laurel -- to a national Democratic Party campaign committee that he heads.

The report came as the slots issue continued to percolate in Annapolis. Among other developments:

U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn sent an emissary to tell Baltimore lawmakers that Ehrlich's proposal for slots at four Maryland racetracks should be expanded to allow for two "destination casinos" -- a move Wynn insists would create ownership opportunities for minorities.

Ehrlich met with the Legislative Black Caucus to discuss -- among other issues -- slots. He was confronted during the meeting with an increasingly adamant demand from a crucial voting bloc for more than minority contractor participation.

"How are you going to incorporate some ownership?" demanded Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat. "The ownership issue gets sticky because we want to make sure the licenses aren't portable," Ehrlich replied.

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of the Pimlico and Laurel tracks, told the city Senate delegation "it would certainly be a possibility" that the tracks' owner would eventually seek full casino gambling if its slots revenues were to fall off in the future.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a key ally of Speaker Michael E. Busch, said leaders of that chamber believe they can't rely on the slot machine licensing fees envisioned in Ehrlich's budget for next year. He said the House would balance the budget with "loophole closings" and additional spending cuts. "We do not need slots to balance the budget -- period," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

In an interview yesterday, Miller sought to minimize criticism of the governor -- noting that Ehrlich "is not a bill drafter."

Kenneth Masters, Ehrlich's chief legislative aide, said in an interview that changes "will definitely have to be made."

"It needs some fine-tuning certainly, but I think the bill is going to pass," Masters said.

Miller did not directly say that the governor would have to reduce the 64 percent share of slots proceeds he allocated to education in his legislation. But the Senate president said the new version of the bill would have to increase aid to localities and improve its treatment of the racing industry.

"The industry is not going to pay $400 million in licensing fees for a bill that does not work," he said.

That leaves the state's share, which the governor has proposed dedicating to education, as the only large piece of the pie.

Miller also said the governor's proposal must address what horse owners have identified as a glaring omission in the bill: the lack of any provision requiring that the tracks with slots have a guaranteed minimum number of racing days. The legislation also needs language ensuring that the Preakness remains at Pimlico, the Prince George's County Democrat said.

The Senate president is a longtime advocate for the horse-racing industry, but his support was viewed in light of the disclosure that gambling interests had given at least $550,000 in contributions to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which Miller heads.

Those contributions include gambling groups from around the country, including many Indian tribes that operate casinos. The largest gambling-related contributor was a subsidiary of the owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, which gave $200,000. The contributions were first reported yesterday by The Washington Post.

Miller said yesterday that the contributions were within legal limits.

"There' s no quid pro quo here at all. The company has given to a number of national political organizations, both Republicans and Democrats," he said.

Miller declined to say whether he had solicited the contribution from De Francis, telling a reporter to ask the racetrack executive.

De Francis declined to comment on the contribution, except to say the donation was made after the Maryland Jockey Club announced its agreement to be acquired by Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns racetracks in eight states.

Miller said the legislative campaign committee had played a "very little" role in last year's election in Maryland.

But the committee pumped $53,000 into Maryland political races, including some of the tightest state Senate contests.

Maryland Democrats who received contributions from the committee during the 2002 election include Miller, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh of Baltimore, Sen. Verna L. Jones of Baltimore, Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County and Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. of Prince George's.

Finance reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service show the committee also received hundreds of thousands of contributions from such groups as labor unions, teacher organizations, tobacco manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.

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