Mayor backs slots at OTB sites, tracks Schmoke links change in stance to city's need for revenue

Must raise $40 million

Governor remains adamant that issue needs further study

March 14, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron and Gary Gately | Thomas W. Waldron and Gary Gately,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

Hungry for additional tax dollars, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he now supports legalizing slot machine gambling at Maryland race tracks and off-track betting sites.

However, Mr. Schmoke said his support of slots legislation pending in Annapolis is contingent on securing enough of the gambling profits for the city of Baltimore from $40 million to $75 million annually.

"If it can benefit us to the tune of 40 to 50 million dollars a year, then I'm going to support that legislation," he said. "Clearly, we would have money for promotion of the convention center, we would have money for schools, we would have money for a lot of other things."

Previously, Mr. Schmoke had said only that he would be willing to consider supporting slot machines for the city's Pimlico track if the racing industry could show they were needed.

In comments yesterday, the mayor also appeared to have softened his opposition of last fall to a downtown gambling emporium.

While he said he continues to oppose a full-fledged "casino" in the tourist-oriented area, Mr. Schmoke sidestepped the question of supporting a downtown facility that offered only slot machines along with off-track wagering.

"Right now, I'm just looking at the revenue," not location, Mr. Schmoke said.

The state's racing industry is lobbying hard in the General Assembly this year to win approval to offer slot machine gambling at three Maryland tracks and three off-track betting sites.

Many proponents of slots say downtown Baltimore would be a perfect location for one of the off-track sites contemplated in the proposal.

The introduction of slot machine gambling at horse tracks in Delaware in December has fueled the push here. The slots have rung up dramatic profits in their first few months of operation, and representatives of Maryland racing say the state's industry will decline as profits in Delaware increase.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to veto any slot machine bill this year, saying the state needs more time to assess the threat Delaware poses to Maryland racing. A spokesman said yesterday that there has been no change in the governor's position.

While the governor's threatened veto appears to have settled the issue for this year, some officials, including Mr. Schmoke, are wondering if the racing industry might still be able to make an all-out push for the legislation in the remaining 3 1/2 weeks of the General Assembly's 90-day session.

"I've been operating on the assumption that this is a dead issue," Mr. Schmoke said. "But if it starts to move, I want the city to get as good a deal as it can."

Dels. Clarence Davis of Baltimore, Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack of Harford County and Carolyn J. B. Howard of Prince George's County, all Democrats, have introduced a bill to authorize 11,500 slots at the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft race courses and three unspecified off-track sites.

The measure is in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The most prominent supporter of the proposal is House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who has made it clear that he would like to see an off-track facility built near his economically depressed home town, Cumberland, in Western Maryland.

Mr. Schmoke's support for the slots legislation would likely be an important asset, as the mayor often provides leadership to city legislators on big-ticket issues.

Down the road, his support would be crucial since the pending legislation would require approval by local officials, including the mayor, before slot machine gambling could be introduced at a site.

Joseph A. De Francis, owner of the Pimlico and Laurel tracks, said he was happy to have the mayor's support.

"Given the importance of this bill to the continued survival of Pimlico race track, I'm very, very pleased the mayor has said what he said," Mr. De Francis said.

The legislature's fiscal analysts have estimated that 11,500 slots ZTC would generate nearly $1 billion in profits a year and roughly $120 million in state and local tax revenue.

Under the legislation pending in the State House, Baltimore would stand to collect a minimum of $13 million a year in slot-related revenue, Mr. De Francis estimated.

But that is something for the General Assembly to decide, he said.

Several members of the state's racing industry met with legislators in a closed-door session yesterday to discuss the bill and negotiate over the proposed division of slot revenue.

The Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote on the bill sometime next week. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue say it is too close to call.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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