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Slots supporters have the cash to back their cause

The Baltimore Sun

The horse-racing industry and gambling companies have pumped $3.8 million into a campaign to convince voters to approve slot machine gambling in Maryland, according to campaign finance documents released yesterday.

Slots supporters have out-raised opponents by a margin of 9-to-1, figures show, spending their proceeds on a wave of television advertising and aggressive door-to-door campaigning.

Advocates said the donations reflect a strong desire among horse breeders, owners and trainers to save historic industry devastated by competition from neighboring states that offer slots.

The largest donation was $2 million from the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Laurel Park. The track is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., which hopes to add slot machines there.

Opponents said the campaign finance reports show that special interests are trying to sway the referendum while their side relies on mostly small donations of less than $2,000 on average from people who believe slots are wrong for Maryland. Their top donor, James Robinson, a Baltimore native and founder of the movie company Morgan Creek Productions, gave $75,000.

"You have economic interests on one side and then you just have values and moral concerns on the other," said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Clearly the deep pockets are on the economic side."

The lopsided campaign finance reports reflect the experience of other states that have held referendums on gambling and seen money pour in from donors with a financial stake in the outcome. But the mismatched money race doesn't necessarily mean an easy win for proponents. Some polls have shown sliding support, although it appears a majority of voters still supports the proposal.

The Nov. 4 referendum could end a debate that has dogged Maryland and the State House for years. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, 15,000 slot machines would be allowed at five locations around the state. The proceeds would be split among gambling companies, government coffers and the horse-racing industry.

The ballot committees were required to file reports yesterday with the Maryland State Board of Elections covering this year through Oct. 5. They report once more this month and again after the election.

The pro-slots ballot committee For Maryland For Our Future collected $1 million from Penn National Gaming, which plans to seek a slots license in Cecil County; and $250,000 from William Rickman Jr., who owns the Ocean Downs track on the Eastern Shore and is also expected to bid for a license if the proposal is approved.

International Gaming Technology, the world's largest maker of slot machines, which has employed lobbyists in Annapolis for years, gave $50,000 to the latest pro-slots effort. The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association contributed $300,000.

"We've been pro-slots for more than a dozen years, and we wanted to help with that campaign," said Richard Hoffberger, president of the horsemen's association. He added that the group's contribution amounted to more than its annual operating budget and "way more" than what it has spent on lobbying in the past.

Proponents spent $1.5 million to run television and radio advertisements in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs and $1.1 million on a 10-week, door-to-door canvassing operation. Workers knocked on 300,000 doors and distributed 20,000 yard signs.

The group has $559,000 in cash remaining.

Steve Kearney, an adviser to the ballot committee, said his group needed resources to counter arguments from slots opponents such as Comptroller Peter Franchot, whom he accused of "misleading voters for almost a year."

"We make no apologies for raising the resources necessary to correct their misinformation," Kearney said.

Marylanders United to Stop Slots, the largest anti-slots ballot committee, reported raising $411,000, with $143,000 in available cash. The group played down its disadvantage in fund-raising and characterized the campaign as "David versus Goliath."

"It's clear Maryland is no longer the free state. It's the pay-to-play state," said Bridgett Frey, a spokeswoman for Marylanders United.

But some well-heeled businessmen were among the largest donors. Stewart Bainum Jr., a Seventh-day Adventist who unsuccessfully fought the Maryland lottery as a state lawmaker and now is chairman of Choice Hotels International Inc., has given $55,000. Ocean City restaurateur Hale Harrison donated $50,000.

Aaron Meisner, head of Stop Slots Maryland, which has formed another ballot committee, also painted himself as fighting special interests. He said his group raised less than $20,000, mostly in increments of less than $100, and has spent about $60 on a tank of gas.

"The beauty of our campaign is that it doesn't take a lot of money to talk to Maryland voters one-on-one," Meisner said. "The other side knows that the prize is more than a half-billion a year. Of course they're spending this money. They'd be crazy not to."

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