House leader favors slots for tracks Speaker would seek several conditions before giving support

'It's the foot in the door'

Move is alternative to full-scale casinos coming into state

November 16, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer John W. Frece contributed to this article.

Joining in what appeared to be growing political support for an alternative to full-fledged casinos, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said yesterday he would vote for slot machines at Maryland race tracks and off-tracktate established two or three new off-track betting parlors in rural areas, including his own.

The speaker also said that county governments should have the final say to approve slots at parlors and residents should be allowed to vote on the issue if they wish. Mr. Taylor said this scenario made the best economic sense for the horse racing industry and Maryland.

"By extending it to two or three OTB's in the rural areas of the state, you give the race track industry a market that it otherwise wouldn't get," Mr. Taylor said. "By also doing that, you are creating a tourist destination attraction for out-of-state dollars."

Maryland has five approved OTBs in Frederick, Cambridge, Colonial Beach, North East and La Plata.

Mr. Taylor's comments come a day after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he would support legalizing slot machines at Maryland's thoroughbred race courses. On Monday, state task force voted 7-0 to oppose casinos, but its carefully worded statement took no position on slot machines at race tracks.

The two legislative leaders had declined to publicly take sides on the casino issue in deference to the task force. The vote, however, appeared to make them feel more free to discuss their thoughts.

While some other political leaders have left the door open on the matter of slot machines, Speaker Taylor and President Miller are the first two major leaders to clearly support them. They are the two most powerful members of the General Assembly and often can make or break legislation.

The two, though, are at odds over how far slot machines should spread in Maryland and its racing industry. Mr. Miller advocates slots only at the thoroughbred tracks, Laurel and Pimlico, and restricting play to racing hours.

Two Delaware race courses plan to open more than 1,200 slot machines this year and Maryland track officials say that will lure away both business and horses. Mr. Miller said he views placing slot machines at the race tracks as another competitive tool.

He said yesterday Mr. Taylor's proposal of expanding slot machines into the rural areas goes too far and predicted that the legislature would reject it.

Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he sees no difference between slot machines at off-track-betting parlors and casino. "I don't think you will find support for that in the General Assembly," he said.

Mr. Miller also said he was worried about expanding gambling too much.

"People are being drawn down a slippery slope from which there will be no retreat when we start talking about selective sites for gambling in Maryland," he said. Mr. Miller offered the following example: If slot machines were permitted at an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge, where local officials have expressed interest in a casino, "What is to stop [the Nevada casino firm] Harvey's from coming into Cambridge? How do you say 'no' to Harvey's?"

The chances of legalizing slots at the tracks during the General ++ Assembly session which opens Jan. 11 is uncertain.

Some legislators disagree with Mr. Miller and say slot machine gambling at the race tracks is the same as a casino.

"It's the foot in the door," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican who leads an anti-casino group. "If we at the legislature allow slot machines to enter the Maryland race tracks, then the next step may well be poker games and blackjack."

Mr. Taylor said he made his comments yesterday in response to public officials and others who have addressed the slots issue in recent weeks.

They include Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who have criticized casinos, but said they might consider slots at the tracks.

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