Panel OKs $10 million for racing industry Funds would increase prizes at tracks

March 22, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill yesterday that calls for spending $10 million in state money to increase the prizes paid by Maryland's horse racing industry next year.

The plan would give the industry a welcome boost at a time when Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he wants to wait for the report of a study commission before giving state aid.

But Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the committee and the principal architect of the plan, said the industry can't wait for help while its business is being siphoned off by tracks in Delaware, where revenue from slot machines has let racetracks increase their purses.

"This is a Band-Aid. This is not a permanent solution," said Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat.

If the plan is adopted, it would be a departure from past state efforts to aid the racing industry, which have generally come entirely in the form of tax breaks.

The plan's prospects appear bright in the Senate, but could have a hard time passing muster in the House of Delegates.

For the industry, however, Bromwell's plan is a ray of hope. Alan Rifkin, a lobbyist for the Maryland Jockey Club, called it "very significant."

"The competitive threat from Delaware is no longer imaginary. It is real and it is immediate," he said.

Bromwell said Delaware tracks, which have had slot machines for more than a year, have increased their average purse per race from $17,000 to $40,000 while the average purse in Maryland languished at $26,000.

Glendening has categorically ruled out the notion of slots at Maryland racetracks.

Bromwell said his plan is contingent upon coming up with the money, but he expressed confidence that it would be found.

The proposal has the support of Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee.

Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who signed on as co-sponsor of the racing bill, said yesterday that the state has to do something to shore up purses in view of competition from nearby states.

"I've already told [Budget Secretary] Fred Puddester where to find the money," she said.

Bromwell said $1.5 million could come from diverting money collected through the state's 0.5 percent tax on all racing bets, while another $3.5 million could come from uncollected lottery winnings that now go to the general fund.

That would leave $5 million for Hoffman to find elsewhere in the budget.

While the proposal's high-level backing gives it a good chance in the Senate, it could face "a difficult time" in the House of Delegates, said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

"Given the demands of the county executives for tens of millions of dollars in education aid and given the fact that a 7 percent income tax reduction is a priority of the House of Delegates, a reduction of the magnitude of $10 million would create a budget that is not in balance," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

While the administration hasn't offered the industry any aid, Glendening press secretary Judi Scioli wouldn't close the door on the notion.

"The governor has said, with slots off the table, he would be listening to what other people had to say," she said.

The legislation approved yesterday -- a melding of three hTC previously proposed bills -- also calls for the creation of a commission to study the fiscal viability of the racing industry.

Under the bill, four members would come from the Senate, four from the House and four would be named by the governor.

The commission would be required to report its recommendation to the General Assembly in November.

Bromwell said said 60 percent of the money would go to the thoroughbred racing industry and 40 percent to Standardbred racing.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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