Odds appear long for Timonium to get slot machines

Even if Ehrlich agrees, several key lawmakers are strongly opposed

February 28, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Although Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said this week that he has an "open mind" on the idea, putting slot machines at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium looks like a long shot at best.

Fairgrounds management is ambivalent about installing slots there, and some of the state's most powerful legislators are dead set against it.

Sen. James Brochin of Towson vowed yesterday to filibuster any bill that would allow slot machines in Timonium, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller dismissed the idea as a "nonstarter," and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, promised opposition from the Baltimore delegation.

Timonium entered the discussion this week as the slots debate took on a strongly racial tone, with Ehrlich accusing House Speaker Michael E. Busch of "playing the race card" after Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, questioned whether the administration's slots plan might disproportionately hurt black communities.

At a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, asked Ehrlich why he was backing slots at racetracks in predominantly black neighborhoods but not at those in mostly white areas, such as Timonium and Ocean Downs near Ocean City.

Ehrlich responded that he would keep slots out of Ocean Downs in deference to the local view that they would hurt tourism. But he said he would not oppose them in Timonium.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said yesterday that the governor wanted to make it clear that he did not feel "the family atmosphere of the current venues chosen is any less important than the family atmosphere of Timonium or Ocean City."

DeLeaver said any move to put slots in Timonium won't come from the governor's office, but Ehrlich did not express strong opposition to the idea of slots at the fairgrounds when the administration's plan was being drafted.

Brochin, a Democrat who made legalizing slots to fund education a central theme of his campaign last fall, said yesterday that he would fight any effort to put them in Timonium, an area that he said is choked with traffic.

"If it comes down for me and I have to make a decision on Draconian cuts [to state programs] or slots at Timonium, I'll take the Draconian cuts," he said.

Del. William J. Frank of Towson said he and fellow Republican Dels. Susan L.M. Aumann and John G. Trueschler oppose putting slots at the fairgrounds in their district. Trueschler opposes slots in general.

Miller said slots at Timonium would do nothing to save Maryland's horse-racing industry, one of the stated aims of the legislation. Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County are open year-round. Racing in Timonium takes place eight days a year during the State Fair, he said.

"Timonium is a nonstarter, and I think the governor will agree," Miller said.

Rawlings said he and other city legislators think that with slots in Timonium, "you might as well close down Pimlico."

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said he would oppose the idea for that reason and others. "Timonium is not in any way a possibility for slots," he said.

Howard M. Mosner Jr., president and general manager of the fairgrounds, said management there was initially interested in slot machines and noted that with renovations to conference and exhibition space, slots could be in use within 90 days of a bill's passage.

Mosner said he is satisfied with the governor's current plan, which keeps slots out of Timonium but gives the track a share of slots revenue to increase the size of purses.

"If it came down to having them here or the legislation failing, certainly we would have them here," Mosner said. "But if that does not become an issue, we are very satisfied with the way we have been treated in the current governor's bill."

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the Laurel Park and Pimlico racetracks, said the real issue is not traffic or race but that Timonium is not a daily racing operation. Putting slots at a venue where betting goes on every day is appropriate, but putting them where betting goes on eight days a year is not, he said.

"Believe me, if you put slots at Timonium, they're going to become a gaming facility on a routine, year-round basis," Capps said. "They're not going to be a fairgrounds anymore or an exhibition place anymore. They're going to be a gaming facility."

Louis W. Miller, a member of the executive committee of the Greater Timonium Community Council, said the group has decided to remain neutral for now.

But he said the eight-member executive committee discussed slots informally at its last meeting. One person opposed them altogether, and the other seven didn't care whether slots were made legal, he said, as long as they weren't in Timonium.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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