The General Assembly's chief policy analyst recommended yesterday that senators call the bluff of racetrack owners and cut the share of proceeds they would be awarded under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot machines bill.
Likening the General Assembly's dealings with the tracks to "a game of liar's poker," Warren Deschenaux told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee that he believes the owners can get by with 39 percent of the gross take - letting lawmakers increase the shares for schools, local jurisdictions and racing purses.
Last week, the racetrack owners told senators that the 43.6 percent proposed by Ehrlich was the lowest number that they could accept.
The senators' deliberation occurred after representatives of diverse segments of the racing industry - including several horses - rallied across from the State House in support of slots.
"This is not just about jobs. This is about a way of life. We need to preserve that," said Bill Boniface, owner of Bonita Farm in Harford County. As he spoke, a van bearing the name of his farm - where 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony was bred - circled the State House with several other horse transports.
The vocal demonstration, which drew more than 100 people, was marred by a bitter rift within the horse racing forces - some of whom are determined to hold out for higher purses before backing Ehrlich's bill.
The senators' labors and demonstrators' impassioned speeches occurred as it is becoming increasingly doubtful that Ehrlich can win passage of a bill this year.
The governor has lost vital leverage because neither the Senate nor the House is counting on money from slots to balance next year's budget. And House Speaker Michael E. Busch backs a bill that would set up a commission to study the issue until next year.
"The House is in the catbird seat right now," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Busch's position picked up new support yesterday from Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon, who said the governor's bill would have a "devastating impact on the quality of life in Baltimore."
Dixon, flanked by gambling opponents, said the state should consider raising taxes - which could be reversed - before allowing slots.
"If we bring slots into the state of Maryland, we can't change our minds about it after the fact," she said.
Pressed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the budget committee worked until 11:30 last night on its top-down revision of the governor's plan, which pleased few except the track owners.
Deschenaux proposed that the Senate offset its reduction of the racetracks' share of slots proceeds by eliminating the one-time licensing fees Ehrlich proposed as a measure to help balance next year's budget. The governor originally called for fees of $150 million each for three Central Maryland racetracks, but he recently cut that to $40 million each.
Last week, Maryland Jockey Club chief executive Joseph A. De Francis said cutting the upfront fees would be worth only 1.4 percentage points off the tracks' share, rather than the almost 5 percent analysts recommended cutting. De Francis said yesterday that he couldn't comment on the new figures.
Figures supplied by the Department of Legislative Services showed that education would receive 46 percent of the gross under its recommendations - as opposed to 42 percent under the governor's plan. The local government share would rise - but not to the levels the affected jurisdictions have said they need.
The share allocated to fattening racing purses would increase from 3.4 percent - which the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association has called unacceptable - to 5.25 percent, which would have to be shared with breeders.
Leaders of the association, who had been seeking 7.5 percent, were far from satisfied by the analysts' recommendation.
"It's certainly better than the governor's proposal, but doesn't get us where we need to be if Maryland racing is going to be competitive," said Alan Foreman, general counsel of the association.
Carol D. Swandby, a racetrack veterinarian who organized yesterday's demonstration, accused the group of thwarting her efforts to rally the horse industry in support of slots by tearing down her posters.
Wayne Wright, executive director of the association, acknowledged he urged members not to attend but said it was their decision. "To create the perception that organizationally we were supporting legislation that is unsatisfactory would be inappropriate for us," he said.