Change in bill worries groups

Activists say rewording removes an obstacle to city slot machines

April 14, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Some Baltimore community activist groups raised concerns yesterday that a last-minute change in state legislation granting property tax breaks to some downtown developers removes one potential obstacle to the introduction of slot machines to the Inner Harbor.

John Paterakis, Baltimore bakery owner and developer, lobbied successfully for a small change in one paragraph of the bill that passed the General Assembly on Monday night to soften a prohibition on gambling at sites that have received the property tax breaks.

While the original bill banned gambling at those sites, the amendment allows such properties to offer current and future lottery games while keeping their property tax breaks.

Paterakis and legislative proponents said the amendment allows the hotel to offer lottery tickets at its newsstand, the state's Keno game in its bar or similar future games.

But the change could remove one hurdle if slot machines were legalized in Maryland because such games would likely be authorized to operate under the supervision of the State Lottery Agency.

"Our feeling about it is that it's outrageous that in the closing minutes of the session, those 12 words were slipped into the bill," said Karen Footner, president of the Baltimore Homeowners Coalition, a group lobbying for lower property taxes for homeowners in the city.

Even with the changes to the bill, casino-style gambling appears to be a distant possibility in downtown Baltimore or anywhere else in the state for now because Gov. Parris N. Glendening has vowed to veto any measure legalizing such activity.

Paterakis has made no secret of his interest in bringing casino-style gambling to Baltimore and made a rare trip to the State House last week to lobby for the change and other amendments to the bill.

John Murphy -- attorney for Waterfront Coalition of Baltimore Inc., which has battled Paterakis and the other developers of the $134 million Wyndham International Inner Harbor East hotel over their property tax breaks -- called the amendment to the gambling prohibition "a major change." The bill's allowance of any "game" authorized by the lottery agency is "certainly broad enough to cover any sort of gambling," Murphy said.

He said the change would allow lottery-related gambling at the Wyndham, without endangering the hotel's property tax break, which is worth about $3 million a year for 25 years.

The bill covering Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOTs, passed Monday on the final day of the General Assembly's annual 90-day session, and goes to Glendening for his expected approval.

Paterakis told legislators he was concerned that the original bill would prohibit his hotel from offering current lottery games or any that might be added.

Key legislators agreed to the change and discounted the implications of the gambling amendment.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a chief sponsor of the property-tax legislation, said he would do whatever he could to ensure that casino-style gambling is kept out of the Inner Harbor.

"It was my clear intent to prevent slot machines and casino-style gambling in the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore City," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, referring to the original PILOT bill and the amendment. "If the language does not reflect that intention, I will introduce legislation next year and use the full force of my power as a House leader to see that it passes."

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, head of the Baltimore Senate delegation, said he, too, agreed that the language dealt with lottery games, not slot machines.

"I don't think it had anything to do, inferentially or explicitly, with casino gambling at all," said McFadden, a Democrat.

Community activist Footner, who has opposed the tax breaks, said that while the change in the bill has little practical effect, it creates "momentum" for casino gambling.

"It's one less obstacle, and it's a psychological thing," she said. "It just sort of contributes to an inevitability."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who supported the tax-break bill, said he was pleased with the final version and said the debate over casino gambling in the Inner Harbor would not begin until state restrictions are lifted.

"I'm sure if the state administration's views on gambling change in the future, then those provisions will be revisited," Schmoke said.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, said the city had previously supported language that prohibited any connection between gaming and PILOTs. But he referred inquiries about the changes to lawmakers.

"We didn't object to the change," Brodie said. "But it wasn't something I was asked to comment on."

Sun staff writers Timothy B. Wheeler and Kevin L. McQuaid contributed to this article.

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