The aggressive, two-year push for casinos or slot machines in Maryland came to an apparent halt yesterday as Gov. Parris N. Glendening vowed to veto such legislation as long as he is in office.
Calling himself "irritated" over a recent rash of negative publicity on the gambling issue, Glendening said he had changed his mind and would not even consider allowing Maryland's racetracks to install slot machines to compete with Delaware tracks.
"No bill that authorizes slot machines or casinos will pass my desk. Period. Or, to borrow a metaphor that I read last week, I am locking the door and throwing away the key," the governor said.
In a second major development, Glendening said that a dispute over control and funding of the Baltimore school system was apparently headed to court after the collapse of a "conceptual agreement" he reached last month with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
The governor said he now agrees with key legislators who have insisted on giving the state more oversight of the school system, either by rewriting the law or through a binding court settlement -- moves Schmoke has rejected as a "takeover."
On the issue of slots, Glendening said he was changing his position in response to the momentum gambling proponents seemed to show in recent weeks.
During the governor's two-week vacation that ended Saturday, Schmoke asserted that Glendening had agreed to support slots and dedicate a chunk of the proceeds to Baltimore schools.
And a Mississippi-based casino company announced plans for a $100 million development in Elkton, contingent on the legalization of slot machines.
"The aggressiveness of the casino interests during my two-week absence has made it clear to me that they will stop at nothing to bring casinos into our state. So I am closing the door on that option once and for all," Glendening said.
He said he would oppose casino or slots legislation through the rest of his term -- and throughout a second one if he wins re-election in 1998.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who has backed slots as a way of generating jobs and tax revenue, said Glendening's comments doom pro-gambling efforts.
"I've said that an issue like this will never pass the House of Delegates without the public support of the chief executive," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat. "So that's that."
Vacation is over
Yesterday's news conference came on the governor's first day back to work after two weeks away, a time in which he was battered by a wave of probing news reports and negative editorials on gambling and other issues.
The governor took only a handful of questions from reporters and refused to answer a query about a controversial fund-raiser in New York last month that was organized by the president of a company that wants a $25 million Maryland contract.
Slots legislation was expected to be a controversial issue in the General Assembly session that begins in January. The racing industry is united in its desire to bring slots to the state to ward off competition from Delaware tracks, where the devices have been legal since last year.
Debate on the issue heated up last month when Schmoke disclosed that Glendening had given him private assurances that he would back slots at the racetracks, with at least $25 million of the tax proceeds earmarked for the financially strapped Baltimore schools.
Although an aide to the governor confirmed the agreement -- as long as it could be shown that Maryland racing was suffering in competition with Delaware -- Glendening said yesterday that the mayor's comments were because of a "misinterpretation."
The governor stopped short of criticizing Schmoke, focusing his comments instead on the "gambling lobby" and its "shameful" attempts to "tie gambling to education funding."
Schmoke said yesterday that he was "disappointed" that Glendening had ruled out gambling as a possible source of revenue.
As for the "misinterpretation," the mayor said he stood by his earlier comments about a deal on slots, though he did not criticize the governor.
"I'm not going to get into a finger-pointing match with him," Schmoke said.
Racing industry alarmed
The racing industry reacted with alarm to Glendening's comments.
Joseph A. De Francis, majority owner of Laurel and Pimlico racetracks, said the governor's decision came "out of the blue" and could have dire consequences.
Unless the state is willing to bail out the industry -- at a cost of perhaps $200 million to renovate the two tracks -- and underwrite purses, Laurel and Pimlico operations may have to be consolidated, De Francis said.
"I have always been careful not to threaten and say Pimlico is going," De Francis said. "But this is really no different from baseball or football. Without some major source of revenue, I don't see how we can survive."