Track owner suggests slots at other sites

Horse facilities seek way around upset neighbors

`I was shocked,' lawmaker says

Satellite emporiums a new twist in debate

October 22, 2003|By Greg Garland and Chris Guy | Greg Garland and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

BERLIN -- Conceding there is stiff resistance to slot machines in many communities, the owner of Ocean Downs told lawmakers yesterday that they should let Maryland racetrack owners build satellite slot emporiums if neighbors object to the devices being added to the tracks.

William J. Rickman Jr.'s pitch to the House Ways and Means Committee to allow slots away from the racetracks -- a significant expansion on past proposals from the racing industry -- stunned at least one member of the panel, which is studying gambling in Maryland.

"I was shocked," said Del. Anne R. Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat. "They had been selling the idea that it had to be at racetracks only because those were established gambling locations."

The debate over where slots should go is taking place as key legislative decision-makers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. continue to argue over linking slots to tax increases.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, say revenue from slots alone won't solve the state's fiscal problems and that the money won't come in quickly enough.

Hixson has said "gaming will be done in conjunction with a tax increase" or it won't be done at all. She said her panel will examine various proposals for raising taxes, including a two-year, temporary sales tax increase or a rise in income tax rates for those with the highest income levels.

Ehrlich reiterated yesterday that he will not accept a tax increase as part of a slots package. He said he believes there is a lot of posturing. "I don't get their mind-set," he said.

Yesterday, Hixson's committee toured Ocean Downs, a harness track near the resort town of Ocean City, as well as an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge and an Elks Club in Easton that has five slot machines. Slots are allowed at some nonprofit organizations in eight Eastern Shore counties.

Rickman urged lawmakers to include all of the state's licensed tracks in any slots legislation -- including Ocean Downs and Maryland State Fairgrounds track in Timonium.

Those tracks were omitted from the slots-at-tracks bill Ehrlich introduced this year, in large part because of staunch opposition from nearby residents who worry about traffic congestion, crime and other side effects from the casino-style gambling operations.

Ehrlich's bill, which won narrow approval in the Senate but was killed in the House, restricted slots to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore; Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County; Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County; and at a track Rickman plans to build in Allegany County.

Rickman said any slots licenses should require approval of "the governing body of the city or county in which the facility is to be located."

A track that fails to win local support should be allowed to set up a slots operation "in another geographic location," he said.

The option is important because a track that is left out of having slots won't be able to survive, Rickman said.

Busch has raised the idea of state-built slots facilities, something that proponents say would maximize revenue to the state. Other lawmakers support putting slots licenses out to bid or permitting them at hotels and elsewhere.

In an interview, Rickman suggested that he could seek backing for a slots emporium in Cambridge if Ocean City business leaders and residents remain opposed to allowing slots at Ocean Downs. He owns an off-track betting parlor in Cambridge located near the Cambridge Hyatt Resort that lawmakers visited yesterday.

But Rickman said he would prefer slots at Ocean Downs. He said he thinks that attitudes in Ocean City toward slots could change if they are approved elsewhere in the state.

As has been the case in other areas the Ways and Means Committee has visited, significant opposition exists from residents and political leaders to slots proposed for specific sites.

Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a Dorchester County Republican, said she would "reluctantly" support slots at racetracks only. But she said she doesn't want them in Cambridge, which is part of her district.

"I don't want it at the Hyatt, I'll tell you that," Eckardt said, referring to one rumored site for slots or a full-scale casino.

During a hearing at Wor-Wic Community College, the Hyatt's general manager, Michael Walsh, sought to dispel rumors that the resort was wired for slots. But he also made a pitch for allowing full casinos rather than slots at racetracks on behalf of a trade group that represents hotel and motel owners.

Ehrlich and legislative leaders have ruled out the idea of allowing full casinos with table games such as blackjack and poker.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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