Busch wants state to own slots facilities

Concept will be supported by panel's report, he says

General Assembly

January 24, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that he remains opposed to the legalization of slot machines in Maryland, but if lawmakers favor them, he will use the results of a study to be released next week to push for the state to build and operate the gambling dens.

The Anne Arundel Democrat, who says slots are bad public policy, stressed that he won't initiate any gambling bills in the House.

But, he said, if a gambling measure from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. moves forward into the House, he will try to steer it to a state-owned model similar to that in Ontario, Canada.

Aides say Ehrlich plans to introduce a bill next week that would allow slots at four racetracks - similar to the one he offered last year that passed the Senate but stalled in the House due in a large part to opposition from Busch. The new bill is also expected to include two other locations for slots emporiums.

But Busch said yesterday that he would push for any slots emporiums to be built and owned by the state at sites that will generate the most money for taxpayers, likely along Maryland's borders.

Busch said he expects that the benefits of having state-owned slots facilities will be made clear in a report due out next week from a legislative committee that studied gambling expansion during the summer and fall.

"There will be some strongly worded suggestions in there," Busch said, adding that they would reflect his view that slots emporiums, if approved, should be built and owned by the state.

He said the report by the Ways and Means Committee will include recommendations for "things the racing industry needs to do and what we believe is a fair funding source for them."

He said the facilities could be built by the Maryland Stadium Authority and then bids taken for management contracts to operate them. He said the process would "take the personalities out of it" and ensure that taxpayers get the best deal.

Major Las Vegas-based casinos run gambling halls for Indian tribes and for privately owned racetracks under management contracts in many states.

Busch's comments on the Ways and Means Committee report came as several Republicans on the committee complained publicly about being left in the dark about what the report will contain.

"I haven't the slightest idea of what will be in it," said Del. D. Page Elmore, a Somerset County Republican. "Every time you ask, they say they're still working on it. The whole committee made a tour all summer long, and now a lot of us have been shut out of what's going on."

Another committee member, Del. Robert A. McKee, said he hasn't been privy to what will be included in the report but hoped that it would not be a "whitewash" and would accurately reflect what the committee found.

"If we indeed listened to the citizens, the message that I got was preference for some type of slots legislation," said McKee, a Washington County Republican. "Very few people said, `Don't approve slots, raise our taxes.'"

Del. David G. Boschert, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said he felt left out of the process.

"All members of the committee should be participating in this," he said. "I don't feel any one of us been included. This is a committee assignment, a committee responsibility. We're the ones who have to move on this issue. Let's get started."

Boschert called on Busch to let Ehrlich's slots bill move to the House for a full floor vote.

Busch said that all committee members have been given an opportunity to make suggestions for the report and will have a chance to look at and approve it before it is issued on Tuesday.

Busch's public ownership idea appears to fit in with the ideas of at least one Baltimore lawmaker who sits on the Ways and Means Committee.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of Baltimore's House delegation, said she is preparing legislation that would authorize the stadium authority to build a gambling facility of modest size on the grounds of Pimlico Race Course, including table games and slots.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this report.

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