Groups unite to oppose slots

Religious interests join with bar owners, others

Strategy sessions start today

Annapolis lobbyist leading effort to sway lawmakers

January 16, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A coalition of bar and restaurant owners, faith-based groups and others is taking shape to fight efforts to open Maryland to slot machine gambling.

The groups come at the issue from different perspectives but share a common objective in opposing proposals to allow slots at the state's horse racetracks.

"Some people are in it for business reasons, and others for moral reasons," said W. Minor Carter, an Annapolis lobbyist who is leading the effort.

"Politics make strange bedfellows," he said. "We don't have to necessarily like one another; we just have to cross the goal line together."

The group planned to meet in Annapolis today for its first strategy session. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat and key slots opponent, was slated to talk to the group.

Carter said he sees the coalition as a "rallying point" for slots opponents to coordinate efforts to try to persuade the General Assembly not to legalize slots.

"We're going to cast the net as widely as possible and hope that we get others to join," Carter said. "This is going to be an interesting fight."

Carter, who lobbies for pediatricians and insurance companies, said he got involved in setting up the anti-slots coalition while working with others to stop CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield from being sold and turned into a for-profit operation. He and others helping in that effort believed that slots, for many reasons, would not be good for Maryland, he said.

"Once you let gambling come in, it's irrevocable, you can't get rid of it," Carter said.

He said gambling might start out with a limited number of slot machines at the state's horse tracks, but it won't end there, based on the experience of other states.

"Can you be a little bit pregnant?" he said. "If there's another revenue shortfall, then they'll say we need to allow more machines, or one casino or more slots at other locations. You don't have to be Einstein to figure out where we're going."

Carter said casino titans like Steve Wynn of Las Vegas and major casino companies, such as Harrah's, recognize the potential for expansion and are lining up lobbyists or making visits to Maryland.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and key legislators who support slots argue that revenue from the machines is needed to balance the state budget. They say they are confident that the machines could be restricted to four track sites, in limited numbers.

Kimberly S. Roman, co-chair of NOcasiNO Maryland, a grass-roots anti-slots group, said that she is "absolutely ecstatic" about getting help from people such as Carter and the lobbyists for restaurants and bar owners.

Representatives of the restaurant and bar industry say slots pose an economic threat to hundreds of small businesses around Maryland.

"What you're doing is cannibalizing other businesses in Maryland when you approve slots," said Thomas B. Stone, a lobbyist for the Maryland Restaurant Association.

About 85 percent of the money spent on slots at a racetrack casino will come from a 50-mile radius, Stone said. For the most part, it is money that otherwise would be spent at other local businesses - particularly at restaurants or for other forms of entertainment, Stone said.

The Maryland Restaurant Association was one of the few business groups to endorse Ehrlich's Democratic opponent last fall - because of Ehrlich's position in favor of slots.

Jay Schwartz, a lobbyist for bar and tavern owners and package stores, said that slots also would siphon business away from those establishments. Racetrack casinos, such as those in West Virginia, often offer patrons free drinks, he said.

"When you give free drinks away, you tend to take people off of the stools in bars and put them on other bar stools in the slots emporium," Schwartz said. "People leave the establishment, and your business dries up."

The coalition also includes several faith-based organizations that oppose slots for moral reasons and because they believe that gambling is a destructive force in the community.

"The last thing we need are the problems that slot machines and gambling breed," said the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, who heads the Interdenominational Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity.

Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Church in East Baltimore, said he is outraged that Ehrlich wants to put slots at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore but won't consider allowing them at horse tracks in more affluent areas such as Timonium or near Ocean City.

"That's racist," Perkins said.

Representatives of Progressive Maryland, a liberal advocacy group that wants the state to solve its budget problems by closing tax "loopholes" and imposing higher taxes on the wealthy, also planned to attend today's meeting.

Although Progressive Maryland's board has not yet taken a position on slots, Deputy Director Sean Dobson said representatives will be there to gather information.

"We want to puncture the myth that the only way to balance the budget is to resort to gambling," Dobson said.

Carter said the anti-slots coalition is ready to start fighting back. "We're just coming out of the tunnel and on to the field now," he said.

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