Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should pound the speaker of the House of Delegates "with a club" to pass an acceptable slots bill and should fire up Baltimore's business community about the need to preserve Maryland horse racing or risk the loss of the Preakness Stakes, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said yesterday.
Schaefer offered his prescription for slots and racing during his customary introductory remarks at the outset of the bimonthly state Board of Public Works meeting. The former mayor and governor implored Ehrlich to steal a page from Schaefer's manual of how to do it, now.
"Maryland does not have a good reputation with the racing industry," Schaefer said. "My admonition is to ask the business community" to become involved, he continued, adding that business leaders "don't believe" that racing could leave Maryland.
"The Greater Baltimore Committee is sitting on their hands," Schaefer said. "There's time yet to do this."
Schaefer called slot machines a partial answer to racing's woes, and said Ehrlich should strong-arm House Speaker Michael E. Busch into approving an acceptable slots bill.
"Slots isn't the answer. It's part of the answer. It's a psychological answer," Schaefer said, adding that he can't understand Busch's reluctance to reach an agreement on expanded gambling.
"I would bring him in and club him with a club," Schaefer said, repeating a gentle criticism of Ehrlich he has offered in the past -- that the governor is not tough enough on his political opponents.
Busch responded that if Ehrlich takes the advice, he should train the weapon at Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"The House passed a bill we believe was well-put-together, in concert with the governor, and if the governor wants to execute the suggestion to use a club, he should point it in the direction of the other Mike, the president of the Senate," Busch said later in the day.
In comments preceding Schaefer's, the governor promised to help keep the second gem of the Triple Crown in Baltimore -- as he did on live national television after the race last month.
"We are not going to lose the Preakness, but I need a little cooperation from downstairs to get it done," Ehrlich said, referring to the House speaker. He said he was not giving up on his effort to bring slots to Maryland.
But the gambling industry might be showing signs of pessimism. Reports filed with the State Ethics Commission this week show that gambling interests spent about one-third less on lobbying fees during this year's General Assembly session than they did a year ago.
Track owners, horse breeders, casino developers and gaming machine makers spent about $1.5 million on lobbyists this year, down from about $2.1 million in fees a year ago. The figures exclude totals for meals and parties for lawmakers.
Some major companies appear to be spending less, including Canada-based Magna Entertainment Corp., the majority owners of the Pimlico and Laurel racecourses. Two lobbyists for Magna, Paul Tiburzi and Carville Collins, reported receiving a combined $4,300 from the company.
By contrast, in the year ending Oct. 31, 2003, Magna spent more than $675,000 on lobbyists.
While not all lobbyist disclosure reports were on file yesterday, it appears certain that the gambling industry's spending on lobbyists will be well below last year's levels.
But many companies are spending as much as in the past. The Maryland Jockey Club and the Laurel Racing Association, both controlled by Joseph A. De Francis, the minority owner of the tracks, spent $205,000 to retain lobbyist Alan M. Rifkin.
For the third consecutive year, the Assembly thwarted the governor's top legislative priority by failing to adopt a slots bill. The Senate and the House passed different versions of a plan.
The drumbeat for slots intensified last month, as the Preakness approached and Ehrlich issued warnings that Magna might relocate the race if Maryland racing does not have the same financial resources as its competition in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, states where slots are either operating or approved.
But Busch rejected calls for a special legislative session to pass a slots bill, and has said the racing industry needs to look for ways to improve its product without relying on a public entitlement or subsidy.
Who will be blamed?
Nonetheless, the industry could use some help, said Schaefer, who built a career enlisting business leaders in Baltimore to assist with parking, marketing campaigns, development projects and other ventures.
Ehrlich must do the same to save racing, Schaefer said. The man who once donned a 19th-century swimsuit and dipped into a seal pool at the National Aquarium as part of a bet said the city should "have a parade" every day that Pimlico is open.
"I can foresee Pimlico is going to move, and you know who is going to be blamed? You," Schaefer told Ehrlich. "The other guy," he said, referring to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, "will say, 'I did everything,' but he didn't do anything."
Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, denied the accusation that the business coalition has not been involved in the racing debate.
The committee "has not been sitting on its hands," Fry said, pointing out that the group has adopted a pro-slots position for three years and has hosted meetings, testified before committees and backed the concept of building a racing facility known as the "supertrack" downtown.
But politicians have to come together, he said, in trying to build agreement that will resolve the debate.
"The problem is, there are a lot of issues right now where politics is driving the agenda, and we don't have consensus being built," Fry said. "But we have to work to overcome that."