Action on slots unlikely until '97 Schmoke's support may help proponents of track, OTB sites

March 15, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Marilyn McCraven, Thomas W. Waldron and Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

Although Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's support for slot machines is not expected to have much impact on the issue in Annapolis this year, it could help gambling proponents considerably when lawmakers take up the matter again in 1997.

With a little more than three weeks left in the General Assembly session, legislators say there is neither the time nor the political will to pass a bill that would legalize up to 12,000 slot machines at racetracks and off-track betting parlors.

"I think it's very late in the process," said Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is expected to vote on the proposal next week.

In the long run, however, some see Mr. Schmoke's support as a key political building block in the effort to win approval for large-scale slot machine gambling in Maryland.

As mayor, he has influence with Baltimore's state legislators, whose backing is critical to legalizing slots in the city.

"There will be more people who will be supportive of this concept if the mayor supports it," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat.

Some think Mr. Schmoke's support for slots also could help sway his political ally, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has said he would veto any slot legislation this year but would be willing to consider it in the future.

"Mayor Schmoke and Governor Glendening have a very close relationship," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican who is a leading opponent of slot machines.

"I think [slot proponents] are trying to develop this critical mass."

Maryland's horse-racing industry is working hard this year to win legislative approval for slot machines at three tracks and three off-track betting parlors.

Industry leaders say they need slot machines to compete with two racecourses in neighboring Delaware, which began operating about 1,200 machines in December.

Revenue from the Delaware slots has outstripped the state government's projections, exceeding $8 million in the first month, according to the Delaware lottery agency.

The six slot operations proposed for Maryland would generate nearly $1 billion a year in profits and $120 million in state and local tax revenue, legislative fiscal analysts estimate.

The bill does not specify where the three off-track slot machine parlors would be, but talk in political circles revolves around Cecil County, Allegany County and the Inner Harbor.

In October, Mr. Schmoke said he was against casino gambling in downtown Baltimore but would consider slot machines at Pimlico Race Course in the northwestern part of the city if the racing industry could show they were needed.

This week, however, he said he would support slot machines at (( racetracks and off-track betting parlors as long as Baltimore received a large share $40 million to $75 million of the annual revenue.

Mr. Schmoke said the city could use the money for a variety of purposes in the cash-strapped city, including education and promotion of the Convention Center.

Some are dismayed

The mayor's shift in position dismayed some city organizations opposed to casino gambling.

"He did promise during the [fall] campaign to be opposed to casino gambling. We hope he's not backing away from that," said Kathleen O'Toole, spokeswoman for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church-based social-action group.

"We're very disappointed that Mayor Schmoke has chosen to endorse" slot machines, said Charles Forbes, spokesman for the Peace and Justice Committee of the Baltimore Presbytery, the governing body of 72 Presbyterian churches in Maryland. "It's a very regressive form of taxation and causes more cost in terms of social problems than the [extra] tax revenues can solve."

Legislators divided

In the wake of the mayor's comments, Baltimore legislators seemed to be divided on the issue. Del. Tony E. Fulton criticized Mr. Schmoke for demanding a large share of the gambling revenue without providing a blueprint for spending some of it in poor neighborhoods around Pimlico.

"He has to have a plan and a vision," said Mr. Fulton, a Democrat. "I'm looking at the immediate impact this will have on the neighborhood."

Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount seemed to agree with the mayor, saying he would support slot machines if the city was desperate for financial aid.

"If the state of Maryland will not or cannot give us the resources XTC to take care of ourselves, then that would drive a person like me to whatever is needed," said Mr. Blount, also a Baltimore Democrat. "That's the only way I would do it."

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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