Schmoke, Taylor press Glendening to back slots Speaker threatens to halt P.G. casinos

July 30, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

A pair of unlikely allies has stepped up the pressure on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to abandon his neutrality and embrace the legalization of slot machine gambling in Maryland.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. have both made it clear to the governor in recent days that they expect him to join them in the campaign for slots when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

During a two-hour meeting Friday about state funding and control of city schools, Schmoke pushed Glendening to commit to slots to help resuscitate the financially strapped city. The mayor even suggested that the city's share should be $25 million a year, according to a source familiar with the discussion.

Taylor, who has made it clear he would like to see a gambling emporium featuring slots and off-track horse wagering in his economically depressed home town of Cumberland, said slots won't become a reality without Glendening leading the charge.

"It is this simple: The gambling issue is squarely in the hands of the governor," Taylor said in an interview. Taylor upped the ante last week with a threat that would be felt in the heart of the governor's political base.

If Glendening won't support slot machines, Taylor said, then the House of Delegates will not reauthorize the casino-style gambling run by non-profit groups in the governor's home county of Prince George's.

"Casino gambling in Prince George's County is included in this equation," Taylor said. "To be morally consistent, if casino-type gaming is wrong in Baltimore, it is wrong in Prince George's County."

Schmoke, an urban liberal, and Taylor, a rural conservative, are both Democrats, but often have disagreed on such issues as gun control and legalization of drugs. On legalizing slots, they have clearly found common ground.

Fueling the debate in Maryland is the introduction last winter of slot machines at Delaware race courses. The machines have proven to be highly profitable, and the Maryland racing industry is worried that their success will eventually lure fans and higher-quality horses away from Maryland.

Glendening has stayed on the sidelines, saying he will not support slots unless he sees hard evidence of the damage that Delaware's may be doing to Maryland racing.

Major F. Riddick Jr., Glendening's chief of staff, said yesterday that the governor's show-me position has not changed, despite the recent pressure.

But Riddick acknowledged that if Glendening and the General Assembly are to approve slots, they have to do it in the coming legislative session rather than in the election year of 1998, when the issue might turn off voters.

"This is the watershed year for slots," Riddick said. "Cas knows it has to happen this year. It must move this year, the year before the election, or it has to wait."

The governor was out of town on vacation and unavailable for comment yesterday. Schmoke, too, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

It has become obvious that neither Taylor nor Glendening wants to be perceived by voters as the elected official leading the charge for slots. "I think he's trying to bait the governor into debate about this issue," Riddick said of Taylor.

Even if Glendening were on board, pushing a slots bill through the General Assembly would be a politically difficult chore. Many legislators oppose any expansion of gambling in Maryland, and many Republicans in the Democratically-controlled legislature appear ready to vote against slots and use the issue in the 1998 campaigns.

Complicating the matter was the recent criminal charge of a campaign finance violation against Joseph A. De Francis, the owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses and a leading proponent of slot machines.

De Francis pleaded no contest to the charge of illegally funneling $12,000 in contributions to Glendening's 1994 campaign committee, and was fined $1,000 and given a year's probation.

On the heels of that charge came Glendening's dismissal of the chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, Allan C. Levey, after the governor learned that he had accepted a $20,000 loan from Henry Rosenberg, an oil company executive who also owns race horses. Levey was another strong supporter of slot machines.

Nevertheless, Glendening will feel increasingly significant pressure from slots advocates -- including from two men who have the means to deliver it.

Schmoke, whose political organization in Baltimore helped secure Glendening's razor-thin election margin in 1994, has been expected to play a key role in the governor's 1998 re-election bid. And Taylor, who controls the agenda of the House of Delegates, can play havoc with the governor's legislative plans.

Also on the plus side for slot-machine supporters, the revenue the devices are expected to produce may be too alluring for lawmakers to pass up.

Analysts are already predicting that the state faces a budget shortfall of about $200 million next year. And Glendening and legislative leaders have said they would like to cut income tax rates before the governor and lawmakers run for re-election in 1998.

During his re-election campaign last year, Schmoke came out against casino gambling. But in the months since his re-election, the mayor has eased his opposition and now embraces expanded gambling as a means to pump a significant amount of new money into city government.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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