Bill to permit slots appears to be dead in General Assembly

House committee unlikely to hear measure before end of session

March 30, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

A bill to permit slot machines in Maryland is all but dead in the General Assembly, and sponsors predict its demise will erode racetracks' ability to compete with tracks in other states where slots are allowed.

The House Ways and Means Committee almost certainly won't take up the measure - effectively killing it - before the legislative session ends April 9.

"You never say never, but this is as much never as I could say," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the committee's chairwoman.

Slot machines are permitted at tracks in Delaware and West Virginia. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, and other legislators say slots are inevitable in Maryland if racing is to survive.

Attention turns to subsidy

With the bill's expected failure, horse racing boosters are turning their attention to a second measure they believe is needed - especially in the absence of slots - to help keep Maryland tracks viable.

The bill would provide $10 million from lottery revenues to subsidize prize money, or purses, at the state's tracks.

A similar measure has been signed into law in each of the last four years, but passage in this session is not assured. The legislation has passed the Senate, but the House is studying it.

Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said her committee would approve the subsidy "if it's necessary - we'll make that determination next week."

Without the state subsidy, purses would drop 15 percent, said Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Breeders Association.

Capps said the state has been "generous" in its support in years past, but that "there's been a knowledge in Annapolis that this kind of thing could not go on forever."

Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said he would "reluctantly" support the $10 million subsidy. But he said tracks need something permanent - such as slot machines - to sustain them.

"The racing industry has a significant economic impact, and racing is part of Maryland's tradition," Davis said. "The $10 million is one way to keep the tracks reasonably competitive. But we can't keep providing that level of fiscal support when there are other needs."

Under the slots bill, the State Lottery Commission would select up to four locations for the machines. Two would be racetracks, while the others would be "tourist destinations" that could include hotels, golf resorts or other horse tracks.

The bill would require a "supermajority" of 60 percent of the House of Delegates and Senate to send the issue to the voters in the form of a referendum.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and a chief sponsor of the legislation, has been urging Hixson to take up the bill before the session ends.

New backing seen for 2002

While there probably isn't enough support to pass the measure this year, Davis and other supporters predict it will gain new backing if the economy goes sour and after a new governor is elected in 2002.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been an outspoken opponent of slots.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and another slots opponent, said he can guess the strategy of pro-gambling lawmakers.

"They'll wait until we're in fiscal distress and then it will be presented as, `Do you want gambling or a tax increase?'" Flanagan said.

In the meantime, the Assembly has been providing short-term help.

In addition to the purse subsidies, the legislature authorized a financing arrangement last year in which bonds are to be sold to pay for improvements at Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway.

The bonds have not yet been sold.

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