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Magna tries slots again

With the Preakness Stakes little more than a week away and the state's ailing horse racing industry commanding fresh attention, the owner of the Pimlico and Laurel tracks plans to meet with Maryland's top leaders today to push for legalizing slot machines.

Representatives from Magna Entertainment Corp. requested a meeting with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch - a skeptic of using slots to subsidize racing - to discuss whether a slots plan that died during the General Assembly session that ended last month can be revived.

The three leaders are expected to talk about the possibility of a special session of the Assembly to approve a gambling bill.

But Busch said he opposes such a step, and said there is no impending public crisis that would warrant an extraordinary legislative session. He repeated his belief that state government should not help an industry that he said has done little to help itself.

"I can see no issue that arises to the level of commanding a special session," Busch said.

"Magna is an international company that lost $200 million last year. Are we supposed to be held hostage by a company that's losing money internationally because they do not get a subsidy?" he said.

The high-level talks come amid increasing pressure from slots supporters and track owners, and as the eyes of the horse racing world focus on Maryland for the May 21 second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. The activity indicates that despite Ehrlich's inability for three years to secure passage of his top legislative priority, the effort by the governor and others will continue.

Last week, Magna executives said they would stop investing in Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park if slots are not legalized in Maryland, and Ehrlich has repeatedly raised the possibility that the Preakness could be moved out of Baltimore.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat expected to run for governor, said last week he supported slots at Pimlico to save jobs. While O'Malley has made similar comments in the past, his remarks garnered additional attention because of next year's governor's race.

Slots supporters sense a new window of opportunity to press their case, with public attention focused on the Preakness and slots soon to come on line in Pennsylvania. West Virginia and Delaware tracks already have slots.

Miller said yesterday that he supports a special session, but that the governor would have to persuade Busch to agree.

"It made sense to pass a bill three years ago, and it makes sense now," Miller said. "The racing industry is in a crisis stage."

O'Malley's comments "certainly help," Miller said. "Responsible leaders take responsible positions. Pimlico and the Preakness is an important part of Baltimore City's economic situation. ... The threat to move the Preakness from Baltimore is not an idle threat. Why wouldn't Magna want to take the Preakness to a larger state that is friendlier to racing?"

Ehrlich began Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting with a lecture about the problems faced by Maryland's racing industry and the threat posed to the state by its possible collapse.

Magna's announcement that it will no longer spend money to upgrade its tracks in Maryland without a significant new revenue source -slots - is a sign

that the state's horse industry, the thousands of jobs that depend on it and the hundreds of thousands of acres of rural land devoted to it, are at risk, Ehrlich said. So is the Preakness, he said.

"The bottom line is Magna is a business operation. It's a publicly held company, and it's got to answer to its shareholders," Ehrlich said. "Maryland's not making it, and to the extent Maryland's not making it, we have a problem."

"It's not the governor threatening," he said. "It's a fact."

During this year's 90-day session, Busch crafted a slots bill that passed the House of Delegates by a single vote. The plan included 9,500 machines in Frederick, Anne Arundel, Harford and Allegany counties, with licenses awarded through competitive bidding.

But Miller said the bill was unacceptable, and he favored a plan for 15,500 machines at seven locations - four of them racetracks. Busch said the fragile majority among his delegates meant that the House could not compromise, and the plan died.

The failure of the bills was a blow to Magna, which stood to have the most machines of any entity in the state under either scenario. Even if the leaders agreed in concept that they wanted to pass a slots bill, specifics about machine locations, splits of revenues between thoroughbred and standardbred owners and other details make a compromise difficult.

The House bill relied on support from some Republican delegates from Frederick and Harford counties, but many of those delegates have said they would not vote again for a similar plan.
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