Ehrlich OK with slots at free-standing sites

However, Md. racetracks should get majority of facilities, governor says

October 17, 2003|By Greg Garland and David Nitkin | Greg Garland and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he is willing to accept slot machines at free-standing emporiums in the state as well as at horse racing tracks - as long as tracks get the majority of the sites.

Ehrlich's comments, made during an interview on WTOP-AM radio in Washington, appear to move him a step closer to House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch's position on the volatile issue of gambling expansion.

The governor said that he expects a compromise to be worked out that would include slots at tracks and at free-standing facilities.

"Probably we are going to end up with three to five sites," he said. Asked what sites he wanted, he answered: "The sites I prefer [four tracks] are reflected in my bill, but it is subject to negotiation."

Then he said: "I would insist on the majority - at least half - be at racetracks."

Busch had opposed Ehrlich's proposal this year for 11,500 slot machines at four racetrack facilities - Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, Rosecroft Raceway and a track to be built in Western Maryland.

The Anne Arundel County Democrat criticized that plan, which narrowly won support in the Senate, for unjustly enriching a small group of politically connected track owners.

Busch suggestion

Busch suggested that slots at other sites along the state's borders - possibly in state-owned facilities - could generate more money for the state treasury. Two independent studies have since supported that assessment.

Appearing on WTOP radio shortly after Ehrlich, Busch emphasized that the House has no slots plan.

"We're gathering information, but the initiative is clearly the initiative of the governor," Busch said of efforts to legalize slots in Maryland.

When asked whether he thinks slots will pass, he hedged: "It's a highly volatile issue."

Busch, Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller agreed on one issue during a meeting last week. All three said they do not favor full casinos with table games and other amenities.

Ehrlich reiterated yesterday that he thinks Busch has moved from his anti-slots position of earlier this year, and said that "negotiations" are going on.

"The speaker has crossed that threshold," Ehrlich said. "There's movement and there's progress."

Busch, who says he thinks that slots are poor public policy, said he is doing his job as speaker in exploring alternatives in case a decision is made to expand gambling.

"I have 141 members," he said. "We are a consensus-building body."

While Ehrlich and legislative leaders have made it clear that they all oppose "full-blown casinos," the state will end up with distinctly casinolike facilities if a slots proposal is approved.

Money generator

Most casinos generate 75 percent or more of their money from slot machines, according to gambling industry experts. And major Las Vegas casino companies run slots operations at tracks in some states, including Dover Downs in Delaware.

The 3,500 slot machines each that were proposed for three tracks in Maryland are more than can be found in all but the largest of casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., according to gambling-industry analysts.

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