Ehrlich aims for 13,500 slots

Governor to propose far more machines than estimated in campaign

January 22, 2003|By Michael Dresser and Greg Garland | Michael Dresser and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will propose a plan to install 13,500 slot machines in three giant racetrack casinos in Central Maryland in time to generate $600 million in state tax revenue two years from now, legislative sources said yesterday.

The Ehrlich proposal adopts the racetrack industry's recommendations on the size and location of the gambling operations at Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks.

It also envisions up to 2,500 more machines at a track near Cumberland at a later date.

Only in Ehrlich's refusal to consider slots at Ocean Downs, near Ocean City, does it depart from the industry's recommendation of 18,000 slots.

The proposed 4,500 slots at each of the three Central Maryland tracks go well beyond the estimates provided by the Ehrlich camp during last year's gubernatorial campaign.

An Ehrlich spokesman talked last fall of allowing 10,000 machines at four tracks, 2,500 each. The spokesman later said that "in excess of 10,000" machines would be required to generate $800 million a year for the state.

With 4,500 slots each, the three tracks would have more machines than all but a few casinos in the country.

The Rev. Thomas A. Grey, executive director of the Rockville, Ill.-based National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, said Ehrlich's proposal amounts to sprinkling large casinos around the state.

"All of the talk that these are not casinos has gone by the wayside," Grey said. "He's nuking Maryland. This is not a low-yield proposal."

The governor's plan drew the opposition of one of the General Assembly's foremost proponents of slot machines.

"I would vote against slot machines of that magnitude," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "They exceed the level of slot machines in Atlantic City and Las Vegas."

Rawlings, who disclosed the numbers in the governor's plan, introduced a bill yesterday calling for 10,000 slot machines at four Maryland tracks, which would be chosen through a competitive process.

The Baltimore Democrat said the size of the racetrack casinos was one of several aspects of the governor's plan that he finds "disturbing."

"He's not directing any of the revenues to public education, which is troubling," said Rawlings, whose slots legislation would direct most of the state's proceeds to schools.

Paul Schurick, the governor's chief spokesman, would not confirm the numbers and declined to discuss Ehrlich's legislation, which is still in the drafting process.

$600 million revenue

However, industry sources said the 13,500 figure is compatible with the $600 million in slot machine revenues the administration is projecting for fiscal 2005. The administration expects to take in $395 million during the next fiscal year - $350 million of it in one-time fees.

Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said that 4,500 machines is a reasonable number for each of the three tracks.

"It's what the horse industry and what independent consultants had concluded about the size of the market," he said.

Bowman said a 2,500-machine limit at each site would not produce the kind of revenue the state wants and allow track owners to build new slots facilities.

"You can't cut the market in half and still achieve the rather lofty numbers the state needs to solve its budget problems," he said.

The administration is working to close a projected $1.2 billion shortfall in next year's budget and is looking to slots to help close the gap.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a leading opponent of slots, said the revenue projections do not take into account a likely reduction in Maryland Lottery earnings and the possible diversion of dollars from other businesses.

"It's going to affect all the small businesses" in the communities where tracks are located, Busch said. "It's going to affect the infrastructure and the road system."

`Going to be too big'

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, whose Baltimore district includes Pimlico, said she doesn't know what the impact of such a large casino would be on local neighborhoods.

"My gut feeling is it's going to be too big," said Gladden, a Democrat who campaigned as a supporter of slots to finance education.

Aaron Meisner, who lives about four blocks from Pimlico in the 5700 block of Rock Sping Road, said such an "enormous" facility raises concerns that thousands of cars will be traveling through the neighborhood daily to get to the racetrack casino.

"Obviously, any time you put a major tourist attraction in the middle of a residential neighborhood, there's going to be friction," Meisner said.

"Imagine the impact on the intersection of Northern Parkway and [Interstate] 83. That section is already one of the most dangerous stretches of roads in the state of Maryland."

Meisner said he started a Web site opposing the Pimlico slots because he found many area residents were "misinformed" about what they could mean to the neighborhood.

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