Track owners to push for slots They renew the quest, having bet money on the wrong party

Legislators are alienated

November 07, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Despite suffering a big setback on Election Day, the state's racetrack owners are pushing ahead with their quest to legalize slot machines at Maryland horse tracks.

Encouraged by the findings of a new poll they conducted, the track owners say their recent television and direct mail advertising campaign on the issue has increased public support for the cause.

But anti-gambling advocates and some legislators say the racing interests have a steep uphill climb to win General Assembly approval for slots, in part because of the huge amounts of money spent by the state's leading track owner in pro-Republican causes during the recent campaign.

"It's going to fall on deaf ears for the most part," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a key lawmaker who has supported the idea of legalizing slots in the past.

The push to legalize slots took a major hit in the election Tuesday when Gov. Parris N. Glendening overwhelmed Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Glendening has promised to veto any gambling legislation, while Sauerbrey had said she would consider slots as a way to help the state's racing industry.

The victory of an anti-gambling candidate in Maryland came as voters around the country approved several gaming initiatives and a handful of pro-gambling candidates prevailed in tight races.

In the heat of the campaign, Joseph A. De Francis, the majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel racecourses, launched television ads -- and later a direct mail effort -- highlighting the money Marylanders are spending on slot machines in Delaware.

De Francis said the ads were intended to win public support for slots, but many Democrats saw it as a veiled effort to defeat Glendening.

Near the end of the campaign, De Francis sent more than $200,000 to the Republican National Committee and persuaded Hilton Hotels Corp., the owner of Delmarva Downs harness track near Ocean City, to give a similar amount to the national GOP.

The money flowed to the Republican Party about the time that the GOP launched a major ad campaign on Sauerbrey's behalf here, prompting some Democrats to accuse De Francis of "laundering" funds into her campaign -- something both he and the national Republican Party denied.

Shift in attitude

Though his heavy campaign spending bruised relations with Democrats, De Francis and other track officials say the public is beginning to favor slots.

De Francis commissioned a poll just before the election that showed that a majority of Maryland voters would vote to allow slots at three state horse tracks if the matter were put to a referendum, track owners said.

A strong majority also said that the issue should be at least debated in the legislature, they said.

"As our polling data indicates, we were getting a very favorable response from the public," said Robert J. DiPietro, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel race courses. "As they continue to understand what is occurring, they continue to ask the question why we don't have FTC them, or at least, why are aren't we openly talking about it?"

The track owners will continue their lobbying efforts by sending the poll results to the 188 members of the General Assembly, he said.

Bill failed this year

Legislation authorizing a statewide referendum on the slots issue was introduced earlier this year in the General Assembly but it never gained momentum. A similar measure is expected to be introduced after the legislature reconvenes in January.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said De Francis' campaign contributions had not hurt his cause and had instead increased public understanding of the slots issue.

"There's no question in my mind that a majority of Marylanders support it," said Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat. "I think his ad campaign helped to focus the truth about what's going on in Delaware."

Pro-slots forces would likely have to cobble together a super-majority of three-fifths of the state Senate and House to pass a gam- bling measure over Glendening's promised veto.

Bernie Horn, director of an anti-casino advocacy group, said by his count it was unlikely that pro-slots forces could muster even a simple majority, particularly in the 47-member Senate.

Pledged to oppose

Twenty-six of the 47 senators coming to Annapolis in January have signed pledges to oppose legislation legalizing slot machines or casinos, Horn said.

"Some legislation will probably be introduced but it will go nowhere," Horn said.

Senate President Miller said he and many other legislators would not soon forget the money spent by De Francis.

"In my opinion, they made a very huge mistake," Miller said. "They threw the dice and it came up snake eyes."

Interested in raising revenue for schools, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he would sponsor slots legislation next year, just as he did this year.

But next year's version would be less generous to the state's racetracks, he said.

"I think it's going to be difficult to get a bill through the House that would provide the level of enrichment that he [De Francis] wants for the racing industry, given his efforts to defeat Democrats, which was clearly against the public's will," Rawlings said. "There ought to be some consequences when you act against the will of the public."

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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