Rawlings backs slots at four racetracks Bill generates instant opposition

February 22, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

A key Baltimore legislator wants to raise $378 million a year by authorizing video slot machines at state horse tracks -- to save Maryland's racing industry, finance a middle-class scholarship program and maybe even pay for an income tax cut.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday he wants to allow 6,000 machines administered by the State Lottery Agency at four tracks -- Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and a half-mile oval called Fairgo, which offers auto racing in the home county of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Some $40 million of the new revenue would be used to increase winning purses so Maryland could keep pace with Delaware, where slots are already in operation at race tracks.

The Rawlings proposal is the latest in a General Assembly session in which racing and casino interests and some legislators have been pushing to expand gambling in Maryland. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening has promised to veto any such bill.

Rawlings, in the past a vehement critic of the lottery's impact on the poor, said he was won over to the slots idea this year by the experience in Georgia, where a new lottery finances a middle-class scholarship program.

His proposal does not mention a tax cut, but some $150 million would be left after program expenditures, Rawlings said. Until the impact of slots on lottery revenue is known, he said, he would advise great care in committing the $150 million for programs such as a tax cut.

The Rawlings proposal, flying directly into a cloud of political agendas, drew heavy flak instantly.

"I think it's an exercise in futility," said Taylor, a potential candidate for governor who supports slots and casinos only if they are backed publicly by the governor.

Right on cue, Glendening re-stated his opposition. "If you permit slots anywhere," he predicted, "we'll eventually be overrun by casinos."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opposed the Rawlings idea, too.

Though he had offered a similar slots-at-race-tracks proposal several weeks ago, Miller said slot machines should be restricted to horse tracks operating now. To become a venue for slots, Fairgo would have to be converted to a horse track.

"If you're not willing to sacrifice the interests of your own home district for the benefit of the whole state," he said, "you don't belong in statewide office." His comments clearly seemed directed at Taylor.

Rawlings said later that the speaker was "annoyed" by his proposal because many would conclude Taylor suggested including Fairgo.

"I was annoyed that he was annoyed," Rawlings said. "I do have independent ideas." He included Fairgo, he said, because he wanted his bill to have statewide scope. He did not include Ocean Downs near Ocean City, he said, because officials there do not want slots.

Any measure authorizing slot machines this year would need a so-called "supermajority" to withstand the promised Glendening veto -- 85 instead of 71 votes in the 141-member House, and 29 instead of 24 votes in the 47-member Senate.

Taylor said he would not try to achieve such a majority in the House, where observers say slots legislation would face real opposition even with his backing.

"I'm not working for any supermajority," he said. "The world that wants expanded gambling should address itself to the chief executive of the state. That's where the responsibility sits."

Taylor said he believes Glendening has refused to consider slots and casinos to enhance his prospects for re-election and against the best interests of the state.

"Any public official who uses the word 'never' has walked away from the problem," Taylor said.

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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