Legislation for slots defeated Md. racing industry withdraws proposal

panel kills two bills

Re-evaluation in summer

Supporters expected to push again during '97 legislative session

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

Bowing to political reality, Maryland's horse racing yesterday industry dropped its ambitious bid to legalize thousands of slot machines this year in what would have marked a major expansion of gambling in the state.

With the industry's blessing, the House Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously to kill two slot machine bills and to study the issue over the summer. The decision effectively removes any chance for passing gambling legislation in Annapolis this year.

Opponents hailed the vote as a significant victory, while supporters portrayed it as a temporary setback. With some political leaders and businesses interested in the lucrative bills, slots are expected to be a major issue when the General Assembly convenes again in January.

"This time next year, the circumstances will dictate that we will pass a slots-at-the-tracks bill," said Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis, who sponsored one of the measures.

Anti-gambling forces predicted that they would beat slots again but acknowledged that the issue is unlikely to fade any time soon.

"It will be back, definitely," said Bernie Horn, executive director of NOcasiNO, a state religious organization opposed to casino gambling and slot machines. "There's too much money at stake."

In one of the bills defeated yesterday, Maryland's horse racing industry had asked the General Assembly to legalize up to 12,000 slot machines spread among six facilities: the Pimlico and Laurel thoroughbred tracks, the Rosecroft harness track in Prince George's County and three off-track sites, which were not identified.

The large number of machines enough to fill nearly five of Atlantic City's dozen casinos would generate close to $1 billion in revenue and at least $136 million in direct taxes, according to state fiscal analysts.

Proponents say the racing industry needs the slots to compete with tracks in Delaware, which began operating about 1,200 machines in December. Many observers in Annapolis, however, never thought the bills had much of a chance this year.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening had vowed to veto them, saying he wanted to wait and see what impact Delaware slot machines will have on Maryland's racing industry.

Some in the General Assembly, usually a cautious, deliberate body, were unnerved by the first-time legislation requesting so many slot machines at so many sites.

And on Monday, the industry undermined its own argument for financial relief when a 1995 audit revealed that Laurel and Pimlico had enjoyed their best profits in years.

"It didn't help at all," Delegate Davis, a Democrat, said of the audit.

The decision to kill the bills yesterday was a strategic one by the horse industry and key legislators to keep the proposal viable for next year.

By defeating the bills in committee, they avoided a vote of the full House, where many delegates would have been forced to take a public stand against slots and would have lost their political flexibility.

"They didn't want to create a situation where [lawmakers] would be locked in" next year, said Mr. Horn.

Consistent with its stated opposition, Mr. Glendening's office said the governor was pleased by the legislation's defeat.

"The governor has said all along that he would not support a bill for slots this session, and he thinks it is appropriate that it be held over for summer study," said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening. "He said he wanted to have at least a year's worth of data on this before making a decision."

Since emerging on the state's political agenda 18 months ago, casino-style gambling has proven to be a tough issue for opponents to kill.

Legislators rejected casino bills during the 1995 General Assembly session. Last November, a governor's commission overwhelmingly opposed casinos and slot machines at race tracks, saying that they might contribute to social problems by encouraging compulsive gambling.

Citing the threat in Delaware, however, the horse industry resuscitated the issue this year, picking up support from House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Mr. Taylor wants an off-track slot machine emporium to help revive the struggling economy in his home county of Allegany. Mr. Schmoke said last week that he could support the legislation if it generated enough tax dollars for Baltimore.

Despite the backing of such prominent politicians, the horse industry may have a harder time selling its proposal to average citizens. A statewide poll conducted last month by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research in Columbia found 60 percent of registered voters opposed slot machines at tracks and off-track betting sites.

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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