Black leaders question slot sites

Lawmakers urge locales other than race courses

Seek sharing of wealth

Ehrlich plan for 3 tracks faces growing opposition

January 23, 2003|By Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn | Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

African-American lawmakers are considering a push for legalizing gambling at locations other than the racetracks where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to install slot machines, legislators said yesterday.

The lawmakers want to ensure that African-Americans, whose communities would play host to many of the new slot machines under a plan favored by Ehrlich, will share the wealth generated from legalized gambling, prominent black lawmakers said.

Meanwhile, one of the state's most powerful African-American lawmakers questioned yesterday whether the racetracks should receive any share of the profits from slots other than enough to cover their costs because of the benefits they'll gain from increased purses.

"I don't know how much more the racetracks need over and above having the slots at the tracks," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

If the state restricts slots to tracks and gives the owners a share of the profits - as the industry has proposed - the expanded gambling would primarily benefit wealthy white businessmen, Currie said. Few of the direct beneficiaries under a plan proposed by the industry would be black.

Currie said African-American business leaders are showing an interest in slots. "Some have come to me and said, `We want to have a piece of the action,'" the Prince George's County Democrat said.

Currie's comments were among the developments on a day in which slots continued to dominate the legislative session:

Buddy Roogow, chief executive of the Maryland Lottery, assured the Senate Finance Committee that the effect on lottery revenues from legalizing slots would be "minimal" - as long as the machines are restricted to racetracks and not allowed to expand to other locations.

Roogow, who is waiting to hear whether he will keep his job under the Ehrlich administration, said he based his prediction on the experiences of West Virginia and Delaware - neighboring states that have slots at their racetracks.

Opposition built toward Ehrlich's evolving plan to locate 13,500 slots - 4,500 each - at the Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft tracks next year.

"It's huge," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a slots supporter. "The people in those communities do not need a Preakness Day operation affecting the quality of their lives."

The Rev. Tom Grey, one of the nation's better-known anti-gambling activists, came to Maryland to meet with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and other opponents of slots.

Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said he is ready to help local activists build a coalition. "I like a good fight, and this is a good fight," the Illinois minister said.

A leader of Senate opponents of slots said his head count showed that neither side has locked up a majority. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, said many of those who could accept slots would vote for them only if certain conditions are met.

"More and more people are saying, `One of my conditions is it's got to go to referendum,'" he said.

Ehrlich proposes to bring slots to Maryland without a statewide vote, contending that his victory in last year's election amounted to a referendum.

Two senators from districts that are home to racetracks said they plan to introduce bills reserving part of any slots proceeds for the neighborhoods surrounding the tracks.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, and Sen. John A. Gianetti Jr., a Democrat who represents the Laurel Park area, said their plans differ in their approaches and will remain separate for now.

Concerns about increased traffic in the communities surrounding the tracks are among the factors driving black lawmakers to talk about alternate locations for casino-style operations.

Locations being discussed include Baltimore's Inner Harbor and the National Harbor development in Prince George's County.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a key slots advocate who opposes any Inner Harbor gambling, said there has also been talk of a riverboat operation on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River near Cherry Hill.

Rawlings, who has introduced his own slots bill, wants to restrict the machines to four racetracks - but not necessarily the ones favored by Ehrlich. The Baltimore Democrat, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he believes that minority representation can be achieved by using a competitive process among the state's six racetracks.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the governor has not changed his position of restricting slots to Pimlico, Laurel, Rosecroft and a new track in Allegany County. "I would say it is non-negotiable," Fawell said.

How to give African-Americans a portion of the business was discussed at a recent meeting of black lawmakers organized by Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Albert R. Wynn, and Rawlings.

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