Racehorse industry wants slots at tracks Bill to be introduced today

big tax gain seen

February 23, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

In what would be a major expansion of gambling in Maryland, the thoroughbred industry is asking the legislature to approve up to 11,500 slot machines for racecourses and off-track betting parlors.

Proponents say slot machines would help them compete with slots at tracks in nearby Delaware while providing $105 million annually in tax revenue to the state.

"It not only saves the racing industry, it makes it the premier industry in the country," said Joseph A. De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel racecourses.

Mr. De Francis said some of the slot revenue would be used to help revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding the tracks with such initiatives as increased police protection and drug treatment programs. He said he would use some proceeds to build a fence around Pimlico for more security and a paddock with picnic tables.

However, the slot machine bill, expected to be introduced in the House of Delegates today, is given little chance of passage in the legislature this year.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has vowed to veto any such proposal during this General Assembly session. He has said he wants to see more data on the potential impact of Delaware slots before he considers expanding gambling here. "His position hasn't changed," Raymond C. Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor, said yesterday.

The thoroughbred industry's proposal did pick up key support yesterday from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "The bill has the potential of saving the racing industry and greatly improving the tourist industry," Mr. Taylor said. The Western Maryland Democrat said he would support placing an off-track betting parlor with slot machines in his region, subject to local approval.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. was out of town and unavailable for comment yesterday. Mr. Miller previously has predicted that slot legislation would fail this year because of Mr. Glendening's threatened veto.

The proposal for slots, and the infusion of tax money they would bring, comes when the governor and legislative leaders are pushing a controversial plan to spend up to $273 million in public money for two football stadiums.

Although the horse industry isn't publicly suggesting that slot revenue help pay for the stadiums, talk of linking the two has been floating around the State House for some time.

"That's kind of a cynical way to approach two unpopular proposals," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, leader of a citizens' coalition opposed to slots and casinos.

The bill sought by Mr. De Francis, to be introduced by Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis, would authorize 3,000 slot machines at Laurel and 1,000 each at Pimlico and Rosecroft, a harness track. As many as 6,500 more slots would be available for three off-track betting parlors around the state.

While many in the thoroughbred industry support the plan, Bally Entertainment, the casino company that manages Rosecroft, wants more slot machines. "I could never support something that was this lopsided," said Bernard J. Murphy, a Bally official.

The bill was spurred by the opening late last year of about 1,200 slot machines at two Delaware racecourses. In their first month, the machines brought in $8.3 million, much more than Delaware officials had predicted.

Rosecroft officials say they already are losing horses to Dover Downs, a Delaware harness track, because slot machine revenues have increased purses there.

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