Rawlings to renew push for Md. slots

Gambling could ease state's financial woes

November 02, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's budget outlook darkens and nearby states look to wagering to solve financial woes, lawmakers in Annapolis will face a renewed drive for slot machine gambling when they convene in January.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that he will resubmit legislation calling for a state constitutional amendment to allow slots. If approved by the General Assembly, the measure would go before voters in a statewide referendum next fall.

Rawlings said the state's share of proceeds from slots would pay for better public schools and libraries.

The development comes as states such as New York and Pennsylvania, grappling with their own fiscal problems in a suddenly shrinking economy, have expanded gambling or are considering such a move.

"There's a lot more talk about it," said Montgomery Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee who also heads a legislative task force on gambling. "If it's working for all the other states, will it work for us?"

Such outside pressure, some lawmakers say, could solidify support for slot machine gambling, a divisive issue in Maryland.

"My intuition tells me that [competition] should have an impact," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "We're talking about major private dollars flowing across state lines."

Rawlings introduced a similar bill during this year's legislative session, but the measure failed as it had in 1998. Lawmakers have never overcome the staunch anti-gambling views held by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The most recent measure would have allowed slots at four locations -- two at racetracks and two at unspecified tourist destinations, which could be resorts, golf courses or pari-mutuel facilities.

Rawlings said next year's bill would be substantially the same, except that it would require an affirmative vote in any county where slots would be located, in addition to a statewide "yes" vote.

He said the initiative would yield up to $400 million a year for the state, earmarked for classrooms and libraries.

"It would be hard to turn it down because it's for education," Rawlings said.

A commission studying the state's education needs recommended yesterday that Maryland spend an additional $1.1 billion yearly on schools by 2007. Some legislative leaders say they are committed to finding the money, but that it would have to come from several sources.

"Gambling doesn't solve our financial problems," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Asked if the state's increasingly bleak budget picture would invigorate the slots measure, Hoffman said: "You were going to see [a push] anyway. ... I hear a buzz about gambling because of the education funding."

Maryland faces severe revenue and spending challenges on several fronts -- all materializing in the past few weeks.

This week, legislative analysts predicted a $1.7 billion tax revenue shortfall over the next two years. Because a balanced budget is required by state law, some combination of spending cuts, reserve funds or tax increases will be needed to fill the gap.

Tens of millions of dollars are needed to shore up the state Medicaid and employee pension programs, at the same time that federal tax-relief measures will erode Maryland revenues even further.

Because it would amend the state Constitution, passage of Rawlings' bill would require a three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate. It would not need the governor's signature.

Mike Morrill, a spokesman for the governor, said yesterday that Glendening would not support the measure and that his position remains "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions."

Asked whether the governor would work actively against the measure, Morrill said: "You're asking me a hypothetical on a bill we haven't even seen. These bills have died naturally before."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in the past has said that she opposes slot machine gambling.

The state's historic but withering racing industry has long clamored for slots as a way to attract patrons and increase purses. This year, two commissions -- one each in the House and Senate -- are studying the issue. Part of their charge is to find out how much Maryland money goes to tracks in West Virginia and Delaware, which both have slots.

And the competition is growing. This week, New York Gov. George E. Pataki signed a bill allowing casinos on Indian reservations and slot-style machines at horse tracks. Lawmakers passed the measure in response to the economic weakness that has followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but a legal challenge is expected from gambling interests in Atlantic City, N.J., who fear a loss of business.

In Pennsylvania, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he would support slot machines at racetracks in that state. Lawmakers have introduced several bills.

Hixson said she has heard that some Maryland legislators might be reluctant to support the Rawlings bill because they fear a gambling measure on the ballot on which they seek re-election. Another option, she said, would be an expansion of gambling that takes effect in 2003.

"There's discussions in all these areas," she said.

Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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