Bill targets slots-related contributions

Delegate hopes to halt gambling-related funds

`Already seeing the influence'

Opponents don't want to single out one group

General Assembly

March 14, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As the debate over slot machines approaches a critical juncture in the General Assembly, some lawmakers are pushing legislation to prohibit campaign contributions from anyone seeking gambling licenses in Maryland.

The measure -- similar to bans on gambling-related campaign contributions in New Jersey and Louisiana -- aims to curb the influence of the companies and lobbyists pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars toward Maryland political accounts.

"Gambling is an insidious institution that will undermine our political culture," said Del. Luis R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. "If we don't take action like Louisiana and New Jersey, Maryland politics and this legislature will be engulfed by a tidal wave of political donations from organized gambling.

"It is beginning, and it will continue," Simmons said.

During the nine months between the 2003 and 2004 legislative sessions, lawmakers collected huge sums of cash from such gambling-related interests as the horse racing industry, casino companies and slot machine manufacturers.

"There's no question we're already seeing the influence of gambling on the state legislature," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, which put out a study last month tracking some of the contributions. "From the time the legislature ended last April until this January, casinos and other groups were donating a lot of money."

Last year, the Maryland Senate approved Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to permit expanded gambling at racetracks, but the measure was defeated in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Late last month, the Senate approved a revised plan from the governor, calling for 15,500 machines at three tracks and three nontrack locations. The measure is now waiting for a hearing later this month in the same House committee.

But the slots advocates didn't sit idly by during the nine months between legislative sessions. Maryland lawmakers and the governor are prohibited from fund raising during the 90-day annual meeting of the Assembly, leaving the other nine months of the year for campaign donations.

During that period, at least 14 of the House Ways and Means Committee's 22 members received money from political action committees, lobbyists, companies or other groups with a direct interest in legalizing slot machines in Maryland.

Those contributions range from a relatively meager $200 from the Thoroughbred Breeders and Horsemen political action committee to Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, to almost $12,000 to the committee's chairwoman, Del. Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County. The committee's vice chairwoman, Del. Anne Healey of Prince George's County, received at least $2,500 from gambling-related interests.

Do those contributions make a big difference? "It didn't with me," said Del. Justin D. Ross, a Prince George's Democrat who received $250 from a company tied to track owner William Rickman and another $250 from the Thoroughbred PAC. Ross said he is "still reluctant to support any gambling-related legislation."

Hixson -- a longtime supporter of slots -- has repeatedly said that gambling donations hold little sway as she makes her decision. "We killed slots last year, and they gave the same amounts then," she said.

If the House committee approves a slots plan, she said, it will look far different from the Senate's and also will be linked to some type of tax package in excess of $500 million.

The Ways and Means Committee is set to hold a hearing Thursday on the bill from Simmons to prohibit gambling contributions.

Under the measure, anyone seeking a license to operate a slots facility -- as well as all of the company's "key employees" -- would essentially be prohibited from making campaign contributions.

People who made contributions would be banned from seeking gambling licenses for three years from the time they donated money, and the slots licenses of those who gave would be suspended. The bill would apply only to future contributions, not to those already given.

"I realize this is no panacea, but legislation like this, in my opinion, would address 90 to 95 percent of the potential risk to the independence of the General Assembly," Simmons said. "It would have a sanitizing effect for the legislature to divorce itself from the money of organized gambling."

Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader and a co-sponsor of the bill, said delegates might craft an alternate means of curbing the influence of gambling: public ownership of the slots facilities, an idea discussed by some House Democratic leaders.

"If we do public ownership, it's moot," Barve said. "There's a big difference between public ownership and the contributions that would come if the legislature is handing out licenses to two billionaire monopolies."

A bill seeking to ban gambling contributions was introduced last year but never came to a vote in the House committee, in part because Ehrlich's slots measure was defeated.

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