Slots face daunting battle in Assembly Senate filibuster is likely

delegates are pessimistic

Proposal called 'disgusting'

Governor favors slots only if it's proved racetracks are hurting

August 01, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Despite Gov. Parris N. Glendening's reported willingness to support slot machines in Maryland to benefit Baltimore schools, key legislators predicted yesterday that any proposal to expand gambling in the state would face a tough fight in the General Assembly.

In fact, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said a gambling bill would almost certainly face a filibuster in the upper house, given the number of senators who have opposed such initiatives in the past.

"I believe it's a long way from here to there for proponents of [additional] gambling in the state of Maryland," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat who himself supports allowing slots at racetracks.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, agreed, saying pro-gambling forces face "an uphill battle."

"There will be a great deal of resistance to expansion of the already burdened gambling venues in Maryland," Rawlings said.

And a proposal to earmark gambling revenues for the city's schools would face even more opposition, he said. "The legislature has a history of opposing the dedication of funds for particular programs."

Legislators were reacting to comments by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who said Tuesday that the governor agreed to support slot machine legislation and provide the city $25 million a year in additional school aid as part of a deal reached by the two men late last week.

The mayor said the governor had asked him to keep the deal secret until Glendening could produce evidence that slots were necessary to protect Maryland's racetracks from competition with slot machines at Delaware tracks.

But Schmoke said he felt he had to tell key legislators, and he confirmed their accounts of the deal to The Sun.

Major F. Riddick Jr., the governor's chief of staff, said Tuesday that Glendening had in fact reached an agreement with Schmoke to support slot machines, but said it was not quite as firm as the mayor had described.

Riddick said the agreement was "conditional," pending evidence that Maryland's racetracks and the Preakness Stakes were being hurt by Delaware tracks, where slots were introduced last year. Riddick also said Tuesday that the governor was not willing to earmark slot machine revenue specifically for city's schools. But, Riddick said, nothing would prevent the city from using its share of slot machine revenues for that purpose.

Both Schmoke and Riddick said the two men had not discussed allowing slots at any location other than racetracks.

Last night, Glendening, who is on vacation in California, issued a written statement saying he felt there is "a significant misunderstanding" about his position. He said he would "consider" slots "if and only if there is evidence documenting" that Maryland's tracks are being hurt by slots at Delaware racetracks.

Despite the governor's reference to a "misunderstanding," his statement did not contradict his chief of staff's comments Tuesday.

Though the apparent deal was limited to legalizing slots at Maryland tracks, many observers believe that if such a proposal were introduced in the General Assembly, it would soon be expanded to include slots at off-track betting parlors -- and even a casino in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

For any gambling proposal to make it through the legislature, it would take a tough and concentrated push by Glendening, Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. -- similar to the effort last year that resulted in approval of stadiums in both Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

Taylor, a proponent of slots at racetracks and off-track betting parlors, said: "It's way too premature to try to predict any kind of consensus" in the House.

Miller said he had other concerns over the deal, particularly Schmoke's assertion that the governor had pledged an additional $100 million in state aid to city schools over five years above the $182 million previously announced.

"Speculation about moneys to be spent that haven't been raised are just that -- speculation," Miller said.

"We have a $200 million shortfall that needs to be addressed, first of all," he said, referring to a projected budget shortage this year. "How is the state going to meet its fiscal needs? How are we going to balance our own books?"

He also said he anticipated an outpouring of opposition from the electorate.

"You haven't heard from the ministers and the people who are very concerned about family values -- including people like my wife and my mother, who think this is the wrong way to go," Miller said.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican who is opposed to slots, said he believed that same concern would be echoed among many lawmakers on such a proposal -- unlike the stadium deal.

"I think there's going to be a lot of legislators who have a strong, visceral reaction against slot machines putting their principles first on this issue," Flanagan said.

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