Busch outlines criteria for slots

Speaker says a proposal should allow machines at destination sites, too

April 04, 2003|By Greg Garland and Michael Dresser | Greg Garland and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

House Speaker Michael E. Busch laid out a scenario yesterday under which slot machine legislation might pass muster in the House of Delegates next year, including serious consideration of casinos at Maryland tourist destinations.

While slot machines at the state's racetracks are apparently a dead issue for the remainder of this year, the legislature's chief gambling opponent promised the House will move forward with plans to study the issue.

A House committee defeated Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots legislation, which had passed the Senate, by a 16-5 vote Wednesday.

Horse racing interests - who say slots are crucial to their long-term survival - pledged to return next year and try again, even though Ehrlich vows not to actively work for gambling measures for the remainder of his term.

Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said tracks have to be able to compete with neighboring states that use slots money to subsidize purses and attract better horses.

"I think the horse industry will continue to try to make this happen," Bowman said. "I'm sure [Ehrlich] would be happy to see the process start up again, but he's not going to initiate or provide the impetus."

Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller ruled out any effort on their part to revive slots next year.

"We'd be really foolish to expect another result when the same people are in place," Ehrlich said.

But Busch said he expects members of his chamber will take up slots after taking time to study and produce a more thought-out proposal.

While stressing that he remains personally opposed to slots, Busch said a successful slots bill would have to include some element of competition in selecting which groups or individuals are granted licenses. The governor's proposal called for slots at three existing racetracks and a fourth to be built in Western Maryland - and they would have been charged $5 million each in application fees.

The speaker said any slots program should be open to locations other than racetracks, including "destination" sites closer to Delaware and West Virginia. He said some Prince George's County lawmakers prefer building a casino at a site along the Potomac River rather than installing slots at Rosecroft in a residential neighborhood of Oxon Hill.

Busch did not mention Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a tourist destination that some lawmakers have suggested as a possible location for slots.

The speaker said licenses should be limited to one per owner - a move that would bar Magna Entertainment Co. from having slots at Pimlico and Laurel Park - and that he would restrict each site to no more than 2,000 machines. Ehrlich would have allowed up to 3,500 machines at each of the three Central Maryland tracks.

Michael J. Collins, a former state senator who was co-chairman of a gambling study committee for the legislature, agreed Maryland shouldn't limit itself to considering slots only at tracks if its objective is to generate revenue for the state.

"There hasn't been an adequate examination or discussion about destination locations," Collins said. "We ought to maximize the availability and accessibility to tourists and to the more affluent segments of our populations."

John Franzone, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission, said slots wouldn't have to be at the tracks to help racing.

Franzone said the state could set up "enterprise zones" for slots emporiums in different regions of Maryland, putting the licenses out for bid. The proposal could designate a portion of the profits for racing purses and a fund to build new facilities at the tracks, he said.

"Everybody says put slots at racetracks, but slots players are not horse players," he said.

But some gambling industry analysts say destination resort casinos are tougher to sell to the public than slots at racetracks. "That will probably hinder more than help them," said Sebastian Sinclair, president of Christiansen Capital Advisors.

Regardless of the shape future gambling bills may take, horse racing interests say they are disappointed that this year's slots bill apparently is dead.

"I think slots were the best way to generate a lot of income to answer a lot of the state's financial woes," said Bowman. "I think everybody's a loser - the state, the horse industry. I'm not sure who gains."

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico and Laurel Park, said the failure to get slots means that Maryland tracks won't be able to offer purses large enough to attract better horses.

"It's business as usual for us, and that's not necessarily a good thing," Capps said. "It's like a small-market baseball team in an older stadium. We're not generating enough revenue to put the best team on the field."

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