Glendening paves way for slots at race track

April 18, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

GOV. Parris Glendening may not have intended it that way, but his actions in this past General Assembly session may ultimately be viewed by historians as the turning point in bringing slot machines to Maryland.

Yes, slots may be headed this way. Not next month or next year. But in the first half of the next decade, you may be able to find them at race tracks, certain Maryland hotels and possibly at Indian casinos.

It could be an ironic turn of events: The "No Slots, No Casinos, No Way" governor paving the road for a Delaware slots and race track operator to build a track in Western Maryland that could be a pretext for pressing for slot machines in Maryland.

Political decision

It's the equivalent of inviting the enemy into your camp. Yet Mr. Glendening was persuaded that getting Delaware Park owner William Rickman onto the Maryland racing scene would hurt the governor's political foe, Pimlico-Laurel track owner Joseph De Francis. So the governor insisted on passage of a bill creating an extra race-track license.

Under the bill, that track will be built in the Cumberland area, thanks to pressure from House Speaker Casper Taylor. Mr. Rickman says he wants to be the track owner. He talks of spending $10 million or more on a dual-oval facility that would run harness and thoroughbred races for a handful of weeks each summer. In the off season, he would use it as an off-track betting parlor.

Risky business

But the isolation of Cumberland makes such an investment risky unless Mr. Rickman expects an added boost from slot machines down the road. One-armed bandits would turn that track into a very profitable enterprise. Mr. Rickman persuaded Delaware's legislature to embrace slots at race tracks. Why not try to duplicate this feat in Maryland?

Thanks to the profits Mr. Rickman reaps from Delaware Park's slots, he has ample funds to build a Cumberland track, absorb losses and gather support for a slot machine law in the legislature.

By then, Mr. Glendening will be nearing the end of his term as governor. The slots issue could be back on the table.

Political influence

Mr. Rickman also will have the enthusiastic support of Mr. Taylor, a power in the State House. A few years back, the House speaker was promoting a referendum to bring slot machines to his Western Maryland region. A Rickman-owned track in Cumberland would be certain to get the speaker's backing in a similar push for slots.

Then there's the current speculation that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the early front-runner for governor in 2002, is eyeing Mr. Taylor as a running mate. As lieutenant governor, Mr. Taylor would be ideally situated to argue the benefits of slot machines.

The wagering machines may not be confined to race tracks. Baltimore developer John Paterakis personally lobbied to tack an amendment onto a tax-exemption bill that will let his planned Wyndham hotel near the Inner Harbor offer any form of gambling run by the State Lottery Agency.

That could someday include slot machines if Maryland follows the Delaware example of having the lottery folks run the slot machines at its tracks.

Then there's the sleeper slots candidate: Indian casinos. A Maryland Indian tribe is petitioning the governor for recognition, a first step toward gaining the right under federal law to run casinos on tribal lands. The tribe even hired Glendening ally Lance Billingsley to arrange a 1997 meeting with the governor.

If the governor recognizes the group as a tribe, it still would take federal recognition to bring casinos to Maryland. Some feel that's a long shot.

But federal guidelines on Indian tribes and gambling keep shifting. For instance, new Interior Department rules have Florida and Alabama officials worried that Washington will approve Las Vegas-style casinos on Indian reservations in their states.

So far, Maryland has fended off the slots-casino drive that has swept so much of this country. Delaware and West Virginia have slots at the tracks. New Jersey has a dozen Atlantic City casinos. Slots legislation made it through one legislative chamber this year in Pennsylvania. Indian gambling is growing in upstate New York and in Connecticut.

Will Maryland remain a holdout? It could become increasingly difficult, especially with a beneficiary of slot machines eager to own a race track in Western Maryland.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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