Black leaders strategize on gambling issue

Top legislators meet in closed session

Slots debate looming

They'll fight proposal if businesses snubbed

January 07, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Intent on ensuring that African-American businesses and communities benefit if slot machines are legalized, Maryland's leading black federal and state lawmakers held a closed-door strategy session yesterday to prepare for an impending debate on expanded gambling.

Organizers of the meeting said they would use the full influence of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus to block slots-related legislation in Annapolis this year if black-owned businesses do not receive a substantive share of the action.

"If it happens, we want to make sure we're on the ground floor," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who participated in the talks. "It is going to be very difficult to get any slots legislation through without the Legislative Black Caucus. That's what politics is all about."

Cummings, Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County and about a dozen state lawmakers gathered in a Baltimore restaurant yesterday for discussions that included whether state licenses to operate slot machines should be granted through a competitive bidding process - instead of being automatically awarded to the operators of state racetracks, as is the plan of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Black lawmakers said that minority businesses should be used as vendors where possible, and that new jobs should also go to African-Americans.

"There is a sense that the issue has been too narrowly defined," said Wynn, referring to Ehrlich's assertion that the operators of four racetracks - Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and a planned track in Allegany County - should be the exclusive beneficiaries of gambling. "People are meeting other than the Maryland Jockey Club. People with votes," he said.

Slots gambling is expected to be the most hotly debated issue in Annapolis when the General Assembly convenes tomorrow for its annual 90-day session.

Ehrlich campaigned as a slots advocate, and his budget for next year will include up to $400 million in revenue from licensing fees for slot machines - filling a third of the projected $1.2 billion budget gap. Spokesmen for the governor-elect could not be reached for comment last night.

But as yesterday's meeting demonstrates, the fate of the initiative is by no means certain, especially as some critics question whether a few individuals will disproportionately benefit.

Recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings showed that the Maryland Jockey Club, controlled by Joseph A. De Francis Jr. and his sister Karin, would receive 65 percent of Pimlico's share of slots revenue for five years - even though they've sold a majority ownership to Magna Entertainment Co.

Such revelations - and the amount of money at stake - will have an impact on the prospect of expanded gambling, said incoming House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and a leading slots opponent.

"The fact that the governor's plan has proposed slots only in blue-collar or depressed neighborhoods - many of them African-American - you can understand the concern of the African-American community," Busch said. "They would bear the brunt of the social ills of gambling, without gaining the economic benefit that many areas of the state will reap."

Other participants in yesterday's meeting included Del. Howard P. Rawlings of Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat and incoming chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. Rawlings has introduced slots legislation for two consecutive years; this year's version, he has said, will include a provision to reinvest in neighborhoods surrounding Pimlico.

Rawlings declined to comment on the meeting. "If I wanted it to be in the press, I would have called you," he said.

Sen.-elect Verna L. Jones of Baltimore, another attendee, said part of the effort is to make sure minorities are educated about the impact of gambling.

"It's economic. It's political. There are moral issues," Jones said. "As a legislator, you're going to have to vote on it. It's very complex."

Also participating was Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, who talked about the impact of riverboat gambling and casinos in his district.

Experiences in other states, Cummings said, have proven that blacks must make their interests known from the outset.

"It's clear to me from what I know about these slot deals that if you don't get an equitable share, or make provisions for equity, it may never happen," he said.

While a specific bill or amendment has not been drafted, Cummings said the strategy session "was born out of desire to make sure that if anything happens with regard to slots legislation, that African-Americans would not be on the outside looking in."

Sun staff writers Ivan Penn and Sarah Koenig contributed to this article.

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