Panel opposes slots at tracks State task force delivers blow to racing industry

November 28, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

In a blow to Maryland's racing industry, a state task force on gambling yesterday took a firm stand against putting slot machines at the horse tracks.

The task force's chairman, Joseph D. Tydings, said panel members felt that slot machines -- which generate 70 percent or more of casino revenues -- would simply make the tracks casinos by another name.

Two weeks ago, the advisory panel voted to recommend against legalizing casinos in Maryland, but did not specifically address the issue of slot machines. Members of the racing industry and other political observers saw the omission as a potential opening for bringing slots to the state's racecourses.

Yesterday, however, Mr. Tydings said the task force's position had been misinterpreted. As the group put the final touches on its recommendations, Mr. Tydings added language making clear that the task force opposed casino gambling "including slot machines at the racetracks."

"We just want to nail it down so there can be no mistake in anyone's mind," said Mr. Tydings, a former U.S. senator. "We never intended to have a loophole for slot machines."

Maryland's tracks are considering asking the legislature to approve slots next year so they can compete with about 1,200 machines expected to open at two Delaware racecourses next month. Yesterday's clarification by the task force would probably make it more difficult to pass such legislation.

Governor pleased

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who with legislative leaders appointed the nine-member panel, said yesterday he was pleased with its opposition to slots.

"The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced this is not about the health of the racetracks, but a different way to bring casinos to Maryland," said Mr. Glendening, who has expressed very strong reservations about casinos.

Although the governor has previously said that he might consider slot machines for the racing industry, he sounded much more negative yesterday. He said the state should monitor the effect of Delaware slot machines on Maryland's racing industry, but said that he was not leaving the door open for slots.

"As far as I'm concerned, that door is shut," the governor said. "It would take just the greatest persuasion [for me] to even think about opening it."

It is not clear whether Joseph A. De Francis, the owner of the Laurel and Pimlico thoroughbred tracks, will request slot machines during the 1996 General Assembly session which opens in January.

De Francis cautious

Mr. De Francis said yesterday the racing industry is studying its options. Given the complexity of the issue, he said, he is less inclined to pursue a slot machine bill.

"If we decided to go for slots, this would make it more difficult to get a bill passed," he said of the task force report. "For people who are flat-out opposed to gambling, this can be a very powerful political sword."

prognosis for such a bill appeared brighter two weeks ago after the task force's vote. In the following days, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said they would support slot machines at racetracks under certain conditions.

Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, said slot machines should be limited to the thoroughbred tracks and operate only during racing hours.

Mr. Taylor, a Democrat from Western Maryland, said slot machines should also be made available to off-track betting parlors, including one in his area of the state.

Neither legislative leader would speculate on the political implications of the task force's statements yesterday.

"It's way too early to tell," said Mr. Miller. "We're just going to have to read their report and find out if they looked at all the implications to our thoroughbred industries."

Said Mr. Taylor: "I have no thoughts on it."

Reasons for opposition

In its final recommendations yesterday, the task force opposed casinos on various grounds. Members said they were not convinced casinos would bring a substantial net economic gain to the state and might lower the quality of civic and moral life.

They also concluded that casinos might contribute to social problems by encouraging compulsive gambling.

The meeting yesterday marked the end of the panel's official duties. Appointed in June, the task force held public hearings around the state and examined hundreds of pages of reports on the casino issue.

Members also took fact-finding trips to casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and St. Louis.

The task force is scheduled to forward its eight-page recommendations to Governor Glendening, President Miller and Speaker Taylor later this week. A full report, numbering between 75 and 90 pages, is due by Dec. 15.

Task force report

* For the purposes of these recommendations, we define the term commercial casino gaming to include any for-profit sponsorship of the games that are common to casino operations, including slot machines as well as table games (e.g. blackjack, roulette, baccarat and craps) regardless of where they are located.

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