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Maryland Farm Bureau comes down on the side of slot machines

The Baltimore Sun

Horses are good for Maryland farms, and slots are good for the state's horse industry.

This is the reasoning behind the state's largest agricultural lobbying organization's recent decision to throw its support behind the slots referendum that is on the ballet in the Nov. 4 election.

"If passed, the slots proposal will bring much-needed income to the state and will bolster our equine and farm businesses," said Mike Phipps, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, which represents more than 30,000 farm families in the state.

The bureau's decision represents a change in its position on gambling.

"We were opposed to gambling for a long time," said Valerie Connelly, a spokeswoman for the lobbying organization. This policy changed in the early 2000s, she said, when other forms of gambling, including the lottery, were already established in the state.

"We did not want to stand by and watch the demise of the horse industry in Maryland, along with all the jobs it provides, including breeders and trainers," said Connelly.

Since 2003, the farmers' organization has supported slots at racetracks to stimulate the horse breeding, training and boarding industry in the state.

"Increased activity and larger purses at Maryland's racetracks will mean more business and more income for those directly involved with the equine industry," Phipps said. "But it will also mean a larger income for local family farmers who sell hay and straw at premium prices for horses."

Past Carroll County Farm Bureau President Jim Steele, who now serves as president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, encouraged Farm Bureau leaders to support the referendum.

He said passage of the slots referendum in November is expected to help plug the nearly $700 million shortfall in the state budget.

Steele, who also served as chairman of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, said passage of slots in Maryland would help recapture "the estimated $500 million-plus spent by Marylanders in out-of-state slots facilities."

The commission is a 30-member panel representing a cross-section of the farming industry. It advises the state secretary of agriculture on farming issues.

Steele also pointed out that most of the money going to the state treasury has been earmarked for education.

Another farm group, the Maryland Horse Council, which represents the racing part of the industry, as well as people who use horses for sport and pleasure, is also supporting the slots vote.

"The 65,000 or so Marylanders who are involved with horses have not all made the mental connection between the future of Maryland racing and the future of the breeding farms with their huge pastures that so effectively filter pollutants before they enter our streams and our bay," Steuart Pittman, chairman of the MHC slots task force, said in a recent letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley.

He said the council was working hard to get the message out to these 65,000 people that Maryland could lose its 250-year status as horse country.

As part of its slots lobbying effort, the council makes the following assertions:

* Maryland racehorse breeders stay in business here only if state tracks can offer purses equal to those in neighboring states.

* Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia all have slots at racetracks to boost attendance and purses.

* Maryland is losing farms, betting revenue, horses and horse-related jobs at an alarming rate.

Approximately half of the gross revenues from slots would go to the Maryland Education Trust Fund. The council projects this could total $660 million by 2012.

Grain woes

Maryland grain farmers have not escaped the financial crisis and declining stock prices that has been sweeping the United States and much of the rest of the world in recent weeks.

The following notes are taken from the Oct. 17 Maryland Grain and Livestock Report prepared by Kevin McNew, a managing partner of Go Grain LLC, a commodity research firm based in Bozeman, Montana, and an adjunct agriculture professor at the University of Maryland.

Grain prices continued their descent to lower levels as a lack of confidence not only in the grains but other commodities as well as the financial markets is underpinning any attempt at meaningful recovery.

He said corn prices were at their lowest level since October 2007.

Harvesting continues at a snail's pace, he said, with major corn states running at only 5 percent to 10 percent harvested, compared to about 40 percent, which is normal for this time of the year.

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