All eyes are on slots as Assembly convenes

Clashing interests imperil hopes for gambling bill

January 11, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Tavern owners want a chunk of the action. So does the state fair in Timonium. Casino interests are sniffing around.

With the legalization of slot machines an unsolved riddle in Maryland, the debate over expanded gambling has devolved into a battle royal among special interests since the General Assembly last considered the issue.

As lawmakers ready for a return to Annapolis this week, eyes remain fixed on House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the leading critic of slots, who some believe might be surreptitiously scuttling Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top priority by allowing competing forces to gnaw it to death.

Slots will once again be a dominant issue in the capital as 47 senators and 141 delegates convene Wednesday for the start of Maryland's 418th General Assembly session. Lawmakers are hungry for a long-term financial solution for the state's expensive commitments to public schools, health and other programs that have created projected budget deficits for the foreseeable future.

But there's little sign that such a solution will come easily, if at all.

Ehrlich must, by law, submit a balanced budget by Jan. 21 that closes a $736 million gap between projected revenues and expenses. The $22 billion spending plan will cut heavily into some state programs, with no new money from sales or income tax increases - or from slots, which could take 18 months or longer to start delivering proceeds to state coffers.

Future years of a school funding program known as the Thornton Plan aren't possible without gambling, Ehrlich says, infusing the debate with tension.

He has ruled out sales or income tax increases.

As a first-year speaker, Busch single-handedly killed the governor's signature slots-at-racetracks initiative last year, becoming a champion of gambling opponents and a goat to others horrified that a delegate from Annapolis could derail plans of a popular governor.

Over the summer, a House committee studied gambling, as Busch publicly considered alternatives that he said would not unjustly enrich track owners and would offer the best return for the state. That amounted to an invitation for businesses that could benefit - from taverns to resorts that could house the electronic gambling devices - and they have responded enthusiastically.

`Fragmentation'

Opponents think the wider interest could sink the slots bill that the governor says he intends to submit. Gambling forces will find it difficult to forge a successful plan this year, said anti-slots lobbyist W. Minor Carter, because of "greater fragmentation" among various interests.

"The casinos, the bar people - everybody's got their own proposal," Carter said.

Some Annapolis observers wonder whether the complications are the deliberate creation of a speaker who wants to kill the bill again.

"I get all kinds of mixed messages from the House," said Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Hogan of Montgomery County, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "If it's by design, I don't understand what the endgame is."

Busch said he does not intend to use his full influence to defeat the proposal this year. He prefers a sales tax increase to pay for public schools and considers slots an unreliable income stream that preys on those least able to afford it.

"My mission is to bring some kind of conclusion to this issue," Busch said. "It's clouded things for too long. I am not going to advocate for a bill, but I am to going to let each legislator vote their conscience."

Ehrlich says he is able to compromise if Busch will. "If he wants to do a deal, we can do it in an hour," Ehrlich said.

Public divided

According to a poll conducted for The Sun, state voters are divided on where slots should be. Thirty-nine percent favor confining them to racetracks, while 32 percent support specially built facilities away from urban areas, and 16 percent like tourist destinations such as the Inner Harbor.

"If a negotiation is ultimately successful, it will be a combination of every option there," Ehrlich said.

Voices representing those options and others are clamoring to be heard.

In Prince George's County, influential U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn is asking lawmakers to band together to fight for community interests. He is advocating casinos at the National Harbor project along the Potomac or at similar locations.

"My point is that a major hotel complex with a concert hall and high-end restaurants is much better than just throwing slots in a pre-fab barn somewhere," Wynn said. "It doesn't create permanent jobs."

Fearing their business will be cannibalized, bar owners have drafted their own plan. They want 5,000 slot machines at larger facilities and 5,000 divided among taverns that already have Keno.

Such an expansion of gambling is repugnant to some, but Joseph A. Schwartz III, the lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, calls it practical and fair. "I want my client to come out a winner," he said. "I either want my plan, or no plan."

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