African-Americans to demand share of slots

To support bill, legislators want black ownership

January 16, 2004|By Greg Garland and David Nitkin | Greg Garland and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Black legislative leaders say they will fight the legalization of slot machines in Maryland unless African-Americans get at least one of the state's gambling licenses.

Del. Obie Patterson, who is chairman of the legislative black caucus, said that there was "a consensus reached" at a meeting last week on slots. The Prince George's County Democrat declined to give details, but said the caucus's position will be spelled out at a news conference next week.

"We will be taking a very strong, very forceful position," he said.

Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat, said a gambling license for African-Americans is the price for black support of any slots legislation.

"There is a firm conviction that if there is not majority ownership by a black entrepreneur in at least one of the facilities, the black caucus may be predisposed not to have any slots," Davis said.

Last year, black lawmakers sought minority participation in any slots operation but did not insist on black ownership of any of the facilities as a prerequisite of their support for slots.

The new demand appears to pose another complication for the Ehrlich administration as it tries to forge slots legislation that will satisfy an array of interest groups.

Davis noted that proposals have centered on putting Wal-Mart-sized slots emporiums in communities with majority black populations - Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

"For slots proponents to think that black people can vote for gambling facilities and ... not participate at the highest levels is ludicrous," Davis said.

A bill last year called for 11,500 slot machines at four horse racing tracks, none of which were owned by minorities. Most observers say they expect Ehrlich's proposal this year to include a mix of tracks and other sites.

Ehrlich said yesterday that his latest plan is being drafted, but that "there's certainly been talks over the past year" with minority business leaders who hope to participate.

Black ministers, who are among the staunchest opponents of legalizing slots, say that steering a gambling license to an entity controlled by African-Americans doesn't ease their concerns.

"It's irrelevant if they say that some of the casinos are going to be owned by African-Americans," said the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, who heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity. "A predator is a predator is a predator. ... African-Americans sell drugs in the city. How has that helped?"

He said the introduction of slots will mean more personal bankruptcies, crime, prostitution and other problems - regardless of the race of the owners of slots emporiums or casinos.

Ehrlich will have to do a delicate balancing act to woo the black lawmakers and also satisfy the demands of other groups, including local jurisdictions that are pressing for more control over what happens with slots.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said the city expects the state to provide money for any costs that fall to the city for a slots venture - including road improvements, police protection and similar expenses. Impact fees also will need to be paid to the Park Heights community, he said, if slots come to Pimlico Race Course.

"I'm not a big fan of slots," O'Malley said, calling the governor's proposal to close the budget gap with slots a "gambling gimmick."

Lawmakers from Prince George's County - the second-most-populous in the state - are working on a unified position that would insert them squarely in the middle of the gambling debate. Prince George's legislators are discussing ideas to give their county maximum control over the number, location and type of gaming facilities that would be located there.

Many county officials favor full-scale casino gambling at the National Harbor development along the Potomac or other locations.

Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, chairwoman of the Prince George's House delegation, said the five county members of the Ways and Means Committee - which will deal with gambling issues - could meet as early as today to craft their position.

Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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