Officials draw the line at slots

Assembly leaders, Ehrlich oppose addition of full-fledged casinos

`There are no votes for it'

Options on school funding, gambling sites discussed

October 11, 2003|By David Nitkin and Greg Garland | David Nitkin and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As gambling companies hire lobbyists and scope out real estate in Maryland, the state's most influential political leaders are ruling out full-fledged casinos that offer table games in addition to slot machines.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch reaffirmed that view at a dinner at the governor's mansion this week where slots, the budget and education funding were discussed but no agreements were reached.

When the topic of education arose, they discussed the possibility of extending the six-year timetable of the Thorton plan to add an additional $1.3 billion for public schools.

Such a delay in funding the initiative is opposed by education activists.

The elimination of the law's all-day kindergarten requirement for some jurisdictions was also broached.

But most of the dialogue was about slots and gambling.

Ehrlich told his guests - including Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - that the budget he is preparing for the next fiscal year will not include slots money.

The governor then asked officials their opinions on how the state should proceed after that: no slots, slots at racetracks, slots at tracks and free-standing facilities or full-scale casinos.

Support for a solution that includes full-scale casinos was nonexistent.

"Our message has been clear for the last 18 months, the last 10 years," said Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary. "Casinos are wasting their money and their time, because there is no way under this governor that casinos are going to exist."

Busch said, "There's no sense even discussing casinos. The fact of the matter is there are no votes for it."

Miller said, "There was nothing agreed upon. It was just a general discussion. There was a mutual concern about the avalanche of casino operators hiring lobbyists, seeking to do business in the state."

Gambling industry experts note that there are few differences between large-scale slots halls, which could contain up to 3,500 electronic machines, and casinos that offer table games such as blackjack and roulette.

Casino companies get about 75 percent of their revenues from slots.

Full-scale casinos would probably be at tourist destinations away from racetracks.

"You can go in and not come out for days," said Massoni, describing the difference between casinos and slots-only facilities. "It's a destination setting."

Ehrlich's proposal to legalize slots at four racetracks was defeated by the House of Delegates this year.

Busch is exploring alternatives such as constructing publicly owned slots emporiums at locations that are convenient to highways but away from communities.

Massoni said yesterday that the governor is not ruling out having slots at such locations if racetracks could receive purse money or other benefits.

"We are willing to negotiate ideas and locations about slots," Massoni said, as long as racing benefits in some form.

The state faces a budget gap of $800 million next year and more than $1 billion after that. The overall state budget is about $22 billion, and slots could generate $600 million to $700 million yearly.

Michael Gisriel, a lobbyist for Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos, said he still sees a chance that destination resort casinos in Maryland with table games such as blackjack and poker could come out of the coming legislative session.

Ameristar executives made a pitch for full casinos Tuesday before a legislative committee studying gambling, and Gisriel said his company is looking to take out an option on property near downtown Baltimore.

Even if the legislation doesn't include full casinos, Gisriel said, Ameristar will be interested in running a slots emporium.

"We would prefer to do table games and have a full complement of gaming, but if we've got to live with just slots, I don't think my people will necessarily walk away," Gisriel said.

"Ameristar is in it for the long haul. So are some other major [casino] players."

Major Las Vegas casino companies run slots-only emporiums at sites around the country.

Gisriel discounted the comments of Ehrlich, Miller and Busch.

"We're not even in session yet," he said. "If they're making that statement on March 30, it's a different story. ... It is an evolving story. I take it with a grain of salt."

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