Odds are good that slots talk won't go away

Panel poised for hearings on casino-style venues

`You can't pull it off the table'

Shortfall means debate likely to reoccur next year

April 13, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Supporters and opponents of expanded gambling in Maryland agree on at least one thing -- the issue isn't going away.

A key legislative committee is poised to launch hearings as early as next month on the pros and cons of casino-style gambling at selected venues, including the state's racetracks and other tourist destinations.

And lobbyists, activists, political analysts and lawmakers predict gambling will be a hot issue when the General Assembly returns to Annapolis next year.

Despite the defeat this month of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to put 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks, some gambling supporters are upbeat about the future.

"I think this session proved one thing -- that gaming's coming," said veteran Annapolis lobbyist Ira Cooke, who has clients with an interest in gambling.

Cooke noted that slots legislation passed the Senate. The bill was killed in the House of Delegates over the form that gambling was taking and concerns about the specifics of the bill passed by the Senate, he said, not because the majority of legislators opposed the idea of expanding gambling.

Critics of Ehrlich's proposal, led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, questioned the terms of the deal that Ehrlich proposed as well as the premise that slots should be allowed only at three existing racetracks -- Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft -- and at a track to be built in Allegany County.

They suggested that alternatives need to be explored, such as allowing slots at a track run by the nonprofit Maryland State Fair in Timonium or free-standing casinos at selected sites around the state.

But neighborhoods around the Timonium track strongly oppose allowing slots there. Legislators who represent the area have vowed to block any attempt to permit slots at Timonium -- even though Maryland likely could claim a larger share of the revenue than at privately owned racetrack casinos.

The idea of expanding gambling to include "destination resort" casinos -- at sites such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor or National Harbor in Prince George's County -- presents its own set of problems.

Tracks or casinos?

One potentially formidable opponent is Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has said he opposes putting slots at the Inner Harbor.

"It just seems to me the politics of that [destination resort casinos] are a lot more difficult than just putting slot machines at the racetracks," said J. William Pitcher, a lobbyist for the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Most states that have expanded gambling in recent years have done so by allowing slot machines at racetracks. Polls, including in Maryland, suggest that racetrack casinos are more acceptable to the public than full-scale casinos at other sites, in part because tracks are already viewed as gambling locations. Track supporters also argue that permitting them to have slots would help save the horse industry by increasing racing purses.

Still, some powerful Maryland political figures, particularly Rep. Albert R. Wynn, back destination resort casinos.

The Prince George's County Democrat was among those who encouraged state lawmakers to reject Ehrlich's plan of only allowing slots at four racetracks.

"If you are going to have these gambling licenses, they ought to be bid and given to those willing to pay the most," Wynn said.

The congressman said he is pleased the House decided to study the gambling issue further, because he believes that destination resort casinos have the potential to generate more jobs and revenue for both the state and the communities where the facilities would be located.

"We need an economic engine; we don't need a slots barn," Wynn said.

Regardless of what measures to expand gambling surface next year, anti-gambling activists vow to fight them as vigorously as they did this year's slots bill.

"We're working to broaden our coalition," said Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland. "We're not taking a vacation from this issue, because we know it will come back up."

A dream scenario

The Rev. Thomas A. Grey, who heads the Illinois-based National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, said he believes moves to expand gambling beyond tracks to full-scale casinos works to the advantage of anti-gambling forces.

"We're only going to get stronger the bigger the deal they try to make," Grey said, predicting public opposition will grow as plans for gambling become more ambitious.

He also said that he relishes the prospect of racetrack owners and casino companies carving each other up as they jockey for advantage in any proposed gambling legislation. This year, as the governor's plan was being revised, various horse racing interests worked behind the scenes to boost their shares and reduce the money going to others.

"These guys can't work together because they're so greedy," Grey said. "They couldn't work together when it was just the horse people. Wait until you get the casino people involved. Their greed is worth two divisions on our side."

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