Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. now supports a slot machine plan that limits gambling licenses to one per company, making a concession yesterday that could imperil Baltimore's historic Pimlico Race Course even as it moves the governor closer to the views of his chief antagonist in the gambling debate.
Acknowledging criticism that his original slots-at-racetracks proposal would have enriched a few wealthy track owners, the governor said he could accept a condition established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch - that one company be prevented from receiving multiple licenses.
"We are heading in that direction, where that business entity would have one license, not two," Ehrlich said at a news conference yesterday, repeating his belief that a compromise could be reached to bring slot machines to Maryland, possibly through a special session of the General Assembly in the weeks ahead.
Ehrlich also said he believes that a slots resolution would include permitting the devices at "one or more" racetracks and "one or more" free-standing emporiums, another idea backed by Busch for which the governor had recently expressed support.
The governor's views are a direct hit on the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns both Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County and has sought to contain slots to tracks. A bill passed by the Senate but killed by the House of Delegates this year would have allowed 3,500 machines at each of those tracks, plus 3,500 at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County and 1,000 for a proposed track in Western Maryland.
Many industry experts believe that if forced to choose, the Jockey Club would be more likely to install machines at Laurel, which is closer to the more populous and lucrative Washington, D.C., market. Jockey Club officials have said that promised improvements to the home of the storied Preakness could be delayed without slots money.
Limit called unfair
Paul Micucci, executive vice president of gaming for Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., the majority owner of the jockey club, would not comment on which track the company would prefer. But he said limits on gaming based on ownership were inequitable.
"To unfairly penalize any facility simply because of shared ownership puts at risk the economic viability of the facility left behind," Micucci said. "Presumably, there would be no issue if Pimlico and Laurel had two owners. Why should the owners of the Maryland Jockey Club be penalized for making a large investment, rather than a smaller investment, in an important Maryland industry?"
It remained unclear yesterday whether the governor's concession broke a logjam in Maryland's protracted debate on gambling.
After suffering a defeat in the General Assembly session that ended in April, Ehrlich has said he will not return with proposed gambling legislation of his own. A House committee is studying the slots issue, but it is not certain to draft legislation for the next legislative session, which begins in January.
While Busch said yesterday that he was glad to see the governor demonstrate flexibility, he said the two have not had direct discussions on the issue recently.
Busch said he preferred that state government control slot machine operations, rather than granting licenses to businesses, an idea the governor did not address yesterday. But whatever the House supports, Busch said, would not be decided by one person.
"I can't unilaterally make a decision that this meets the Mike Busch test," he said.
While Busch, of Anne Arundel County, and others say that allowing slots at Pimlico would draw traffic and crime to a residential neighborhood, others see the development as instrumental in revitalizing a neglected part of the city.
The governor's view "concerns me greatly, because this takes away the incentive for rebuilding Pimlico," said Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat. "And if you don't rebuild Pimlico, then you're going to take the Preakness away from Baltimore City. That worries me."
Davis said he feared that Magna would move the Preakness to Laurel if only one track had slots.
But City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said Magna could use proceeds from gambling in Laurel to improve the Baltimore facility.
"I think that if they can only have one license, I think Laurel would be a better draw, and the owner could improve Pimlico racetrack for future events," Spector said. "So they could make Laurel Park a slots emporium, and Pimlico would be the premier racetrack in Maryland."
Not a death knell
That view clashes with statements made by Maryland Jockey Club Chief Executive Officer Joseph A. De Francis, who recently told a community group that Pimlico might close if slots were permitted at nearby sites but not at the track.
Paul E. Schurick, the governor's chief negotiator on slots, said Ehrlich was sensitive to the condition of the Baltimore track.
"The governor believes that significant new investments need to be made in Pimlico to save Pimlico, and the governor believes that live racing needs to be improved," Schurick said, adding that a limit on slots licenses might not be a death knell.
"There are a dozen different variations of what that means, and we've heard just about all of them," he said.
One option reportedly under discussion: allowing a license-holder such as Magna to divide the number of machines between multiple locations.
Other maneuvers could be used. "It's easy to split up and create another company," said Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican. "Isn't that what the whole corporate-loophole issue is about?"
Ehrlich said, "It would be fine with me if we had a special session before the session [beginning in two months], just to get that out of the way."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller concurred. "We left $750 million on the table last year for funding Thornton [education reforms]," Miller said.
But, he added, "there's no sense calling a special session unless there's some agreement."
Such an accord seems far off. Asked if he would ask the legislature to convene soon to address the issue, Busch said, "I don't think so."
Schurick put the chances of a special session at "50-50." Those were the same odds, he said, of a slots bill passing during the regular 90-day session of the General Assembly.
Sun staff writer Reginald Fields contributed to this article.