Slots get business group's backing

Chamber of Commerce lobbies for Ehrlich bill

`Reasonable' tax rise alternative

Some local arms opposed, foresee gambling as threat

February 09, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is lobbying hard to help the Ehrlich administration pass a bill to legalize slot machine gambling, saying the alternatives of raising taxes or making big cuts in government services aren't acceptable.

Chamber officials decided to make a strong push for slots even though Maryland businesses appear to be sharply divided on the issue. Restaurant and tavern owners around the state, as well as other business groups and some local chambers of commerce, are fighting the administration's efforts to allow 10,500 slot machines at four horse tracks.

The Maryland chamber's chairman, William Cooper, said the group's 58-member board of directors thoroughly debated the issue last fall before deciding to endorse slots. A major factor was that Marylanders are dumping millions of dollars into slot machines at racetrack casinos in West Virginia and Delaware, he said.

"It is a recognition of reality," said Cooper, who is president of Bank of America, Greater Washington Region. "It was discussed at length. I'm confident that [the chamber's position] is reflective of the views of the broad majority of our members."

The chamber, a powerful lobbying arm for Maryland businesses, wasted no time going to work trying to build political support for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots bill.

A day after the governor's legislative team unveiled the proposal at a news conference, the chamber put out an "action alert" to its 1,400 members, urging them to press their state lawmakers to get behind the slots legislation.

"Contact your legislators to urge them to support Gov. Ehrlich's proposal or any other bill that proposes the use of carefully regulated slot machines at limited locations to fund public education," the alert to members said. "Using revenue from carefully regulated slot machines is a reasonable alternative to substantial tax increases and program cuts that would otherwise be required."

But the firm support is hardly unanimous among Maryland businesses.

Restaurant and tavern owners, worried about the effect casino-style gambling would have on their businesses, are fighting the proposal.

"This has been a top issue for our association and our industry for at least 10 years," said Marcia S. Harris, executive director of the Maryland Restaurant Association. She said studies show that slots would be detrimental not only to restaurant and bar owners, but to other retail businesses, as well.

"Every quarter that you put into slot machines is a quarter you don't have to buy a new pair of shoes," Harris said. "It's not just restaurants and bars, it's the movie theaters, the gift shops, the retail clothing establishments. They are all going to get hit."

No new survey

Thomas Stone, a lobbyist for Harris' group, questioned why the state chamber didn't survey its full membership before endorsing slots.

He said 68 percent of the members who responded to a chamber survey in 1996 said they were opposed to allowing casino gambling in Maryland. Asked about allowing slots at racetracks, 45 percent were opposed, 32 percent were in favor and 23 percent were undecided.

Kathleen Snyder, the chamber's president and chief executive, said circumstances are far different than they were in 1996.

"I think going back to something that was done seven years ago doesn't make any sense," she said. "We're not talking about full-blown casinos now, and we didn't have a $1.3 billion deficit then."

Other chamber officials said the responses they received from members on the legislative agenda showed overwhelming support for using slots revenue to help solve Maryland's budget woes rather than tax increases or deep cuts in services.

However, some local chambers of commerce have parted company with the state chamber on the slots issue.

Linda Wright, Ocean City Chamber of Commerce president, said her group opposes allowing slots anywhere in Maryland - a view shared by a broad array of other business, tourism and economic development groups from the resort city.

"The Maryland chamber represents a lot of big businesses," Wright said. "The local chambers represent the little businesses, and it's the little businesses that are going to be most harmed by slot machines."

The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce doesn't formally oppose slots but is cool to the idea.

"We don't think allowing slots is the long-term answer to solving the deficit problem the state is faced with," said Robert W. Burden, Anne Arundel chamber president and chief executive officer. In a statement of its position, the group called on elected officials to take "an intellectually honest approach" to addressing Maryland's budget deficit.

"Quick-fix remedies, while politically expedient, eventually lead to tougher choices later on," the statement says. "We caution our elected officials to exercise special care and due diligence in considering whether to allow slots at racetracks in Maryland, in order to fully understand the long term effects of this action."

Some support

Other business groups, such as the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, are embracing Ehrlich's slots proposal.

"We'll be supporting the legislation with hopes there will be some funding for tourism promotion throughout the state," said Mary Jo McCulloch, the association's president.

"I think the feeling is this is one more attraction to bring folks into Maryland," she said.

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