Deal on slots taking shape

Many questions remain as House committee ends its statewide tour

November 05, 2003|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As lawmakers head for Western Maryland today on the last leg of a statewide tour to study slot machine gambling, they are finding that crafting details of a plan to legalize slots is far from an easy task.

The refrain from Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee that will hold the hearing in Allegany County, hasn't changed from the day the panel began its work: "Everything is on the table."

But while some predict legalization will again elude slot supporters, a broad outline of a compromise deal is beginning to emerge, one that involves the electronic gambling devices - but no casino-style table games - at a handful of racetracks and other sites.

Beyond that, many fundamental questions remain unresolved: where slots emporiums should be built, whether they would be owned and operated by private business or the state, and even who will take the lead in drafting legislation.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., whose slots-at-racetracks-only proposal was rejected in the House this year, has said he could support a compromise involving other locations.

That could satisfy some of the objections House Speaker Michael E. Busch raised to Ehrlich's slots plan.

The Anne Arundel County Democrat, who remains a pivotal figure in the slots debate, said he doesn't believe slots are good public policy, but if they do come there is no reason to award lucrative licenses to a small group of racetrack owners.

"I don't understand what the entitlement is that racetracks should own and control these things," Busch said.

He also said he remains firmly opposed to allowing any individual racetrack owner or company to get more than one slots license. "I don't think you want to give a monopoly for one individual to control the marketplace," Busch said.

That could pose problems for the Maryland Jockey Club, which could be forced to chose between the two tracks it owns: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County.

Timothy T. Capps, vice president of the Jockey Club, said the impact of allowing slots at other sites, but not at Pimlico, would depend on how close those sites are to the Baltimore track.

He said slots at the state fairgrounds at Timonium or in downtown Baltimore, locations that have been suggested, would present a serious problem for Pimlico.

"If you put something on top of us, it could make it economically impossible for us to function going forward from here," Capps said.

Del. Clarence Davis, a veteran lawmaker and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he can't envision any slots bill being offered that doesn't include Pimlico. "Nothing moves forward without a big-time struggle if Pimlico is not included," said the East Baltimore Democrat.

Regardless of where slots are located, Busch said, the state should build and control slots emporiums if lawmakers decide to legalize the devices.

"You could have these facilities at tracks, or away from the tracks, depending on what you believe are the best market conditions," he said.

The issues of subsidizing racing by supplementing purses with revenue from slots, or providing money to improve tracks, should be dealt with separately, he said.

"The state ought to have the greatest control, and it has the greatest control by actually owning the facility," Busch said. "Then, you have a competitive bid for a management contract to run the facility. It not only puts you in control but it takes all the personalities out of it. ... Everybody has a fair and competitive shot at it."

Busch said the Maryland Stadium Authority, which built the stadiums used by the Ravens and Orioles, could be the vehicle to construct state-owned slots emporiums - either on the grounds of existing racetracks or other places such as downtown Baltimore, Rocky Gap Convention Center or the site of the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Cecil County.

Richard Slosson, executive director of the stadium authority, met with Hixson Monday. "The fastest way to build is on land owned by the state," Slosson said. "We think we can do it more cheaply" than private developers.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who backed Ehrlich's slots plan, said the state has no business trying to run a slots emporium.

"Anyone who wants the state to be involved in this ought to go down to get their driver's license renewed," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Busch said that Ehrlich needs to provide guidance on the slots issue and on the larger question of how he wants to deal with Maryland's budget problems.

"We're two months away from the session, and we're looking for some direction," Busch said.

Miller agreed that Ehrlich needs to be more engaged on the slots issue. "This is going to be the governor's bill," he said. "If it is going to pass, it needs to be an administration bill."

Ehrlich's office did not return telephone calls yesterday seeking a response, but the governor vowed after his bill died this year in the House that he would let the Assembly take the lead in crafting a new bill.

Miller, Busch and Ehrlich agree on a few things: Full-scale casinos, with table games, are not right for Maryland, and slot machines should not be permitted in bars and restaurants.

Hixson said the committee hasn't decided whether it will draft proposed slots legislation or submit a report with its recommendations to the General Assembly and the Ehrlich administration.

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