Jobs, history put on table in slots fight Racing industry plea to match Del. tracks likely to get hearing

Glendening hedges support

Political influence visible in success of earlier battles

November 19, 1995|By Frank Langfitt and Thomas W. Waldron | Frank Langfitt and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

An article Nov. 19 stated incorrectly that lobbyist Alan M. Rifkin formerly worked for Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. In fact, Mr. Rifkin was an aide to former Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg.

The Sun regrets the error.

Over the decades, Maryland's horse-racing industry has extracted an impressive array of favors from the General Assembly. Next year, it is expected to go for the grand prize -- hundreds, perhaps thousands of slot machines at the tracks.

Whether legislators would approve such a proposal is unclear, but one thing is certain: The racing industry would bring a considerable arsenal to the fight.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Among its many political friends, the industry counts a former governor and the president of the state Senate. Economically, horse racing and breeding have a $1 billion impact on the state, according to government estimates.

And, on an emotional level, horses have been an integral part of Maryland's identity since the mid-1700s, when George Washington bet on races in Annapolis.

"I think there is a great deal of sympathy in the legislature for the racing industry," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican who heads an anti-casino group and opposes slot machines. "It's clearly going to be much more difficult to defeat something like slot machines at the racetracks than land-based casinos."

The issue of expanded gambling in Maryland took a sharp turn in the racing industry's favor last week when a state task force recommended that the legislature oppose casinos, but deliberately did not address the question of slots at the tracks. Afterward, two key lawmakers said they would support slot machines for the industry.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, said they could be a necessary tool to help the Laurel and Pimlico thoroughbred tracks compete with Delaware racecourses, which are to introduce slot machines next month.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., also a Democrat, said he, too, would support slots at the tracks -- but only if they were allowed at off-track betting parlors, including one in his home base of Western Maryland.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening was already on record that he might consider a request from the tracks for slot machines. He appeared to apply the brakes a bit Friday, saying that he seriously doubted the state would legalize slots next year and that he opposed putting them at OTB outlets.

"I want the tracks to be healthy, but [slot machines] should be our very last resort," Mr. Glendening said.

Keeping the tracks healthy has been an issue in Annapolis for decades. By one count, at least 10 studies on the subject have been conducted for the state in the past 50 years.

To make its case, the industry often has invoked horse racing's long history in Maryland. At one time, tracks dotted the state, from Cumberland and Hagerstown to Havre de Grace. The Preakness Stakes, run in May at Pimlico, is one of the sport's premier events.

"When you think of Maryland, you think of crabs, you think of the bay, you think of racing and horse farms," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat. "In an intangible way, that really helps them. I just think that's a card that's in their pocket."

In the past decade, the tracks have played the history card time after time as they sought help to compete with other states. The legislature has consistently acquiesced.

In 1985, the first major concession came when the General Assembly sliced the tax rate on thoroughbred track earnings from just over 4 percent to half of 1 percent.

Two years later, the tracks won approval for intertrack wagering, allowing them to offer betting at more than one site at a time.

In 1987, then-Pimlico owner Frank J. De Francis made veiled threats to shut the track if he couldn't race on Sundays. After some grumbling about his implied ultimatum, the legislature gave in.

Finally, in 1989, the industry began lobbying for off-track betting parlors, a significant expansion of gambling from the five tracks to restaurants scattered around the state. It took three years, but OTBs eventually garnered enough support to pass the legislature.

Sen. George W. Della Jr. voted for all of those concessions, although he said he grew tired of the sky-is-falling refrain.

"It's been a variety of issues where they claim this is the last time they will want favors," the Baltimore Democrat said. "I don't mind helping to bail any industry out , but how far do you go along with their wish list?"

The tracks argue that they need help and that thousands of jobs are at stake. For years, the industry has claimed it is Maryland's third largest.

State fiscal analysts, however, say the boast is a myth. No matter how the numbers are calculated, they say, there is no way to support that assertion.

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