Ocean Downs lobbies for slots

Track owner's effort runs into opposition from Ehrlich, legislators

Hearings on bills start Tuesday

General Assembly

March 18, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Owner William Rickman Jr. is furiously working to get his Ocean Downs harness racing track put back into the General Assembly's slots legislation, meeting with lawmakers and people living near the track in his quest to secure expanded gambling for the Eastern Shore facility.

The effort -- which included a reception this week at the track for chamber of commerce members from nearby Berlin and Ocean Pines -- aims to convince legislators and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that Worcester County residents back the idea of allowing slots at the track.

"I'm working to have the legislators in Annapolis understand the support that is in Berlin and in Worcester County," Rickman said in an interview yesterday. "I think there's more support for slots at the racetrack in Worcester County than in any other venue in the state."

But Rickman's campaign to put Ocean Downs back in the legislation faces strong opposition. Ocean City's mayor strongly opposes slots at the track, and Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus -- the Senate minority leader whose district includes Ocean Downs -- has vowed to fight expanded gambling there.

"I have a great deal of concern about this," said Stoltzfus, whose GOP Senate caucus threatened to kill the entire slots bill last month when Ocean Downs was first discussed as a possible site. "Mr. Rickman is very persuasive, he's very effective. He hasn't gotten on top of the world of slots without being that, and he's trying to do his magic now with Ocean Downs."

The governor insisted yesterday that he will not waver in opposing slots at Ocean Downs unless he sees evidence of widespread support for the idea at communities near the track.

"Part of our platform was local support, and when we received that negative input near Ocean Downs, we said, `OK, Ocean Downs is out of the plan,'" Ehrlich said yesterday. "Rickman has been trying to go around for years trying to convince everybody it's not the majority position.

"He's been doing that for a long time, and I don't blame him. It's a free country. He owns the track," Ehrlich said. "When the city fathers and city mothers and chambers of commerce and business owners go around and tell me they support slots at Ocean Downs, then we can talk. I doubt that will occur."

As Rickman tries to make that case before hearings scheduled to begin next week in the House of Delegates, Ehrlich and his administration are working behind the scenes to try to find common ground with leading House Democrats.

Ehrlich met with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on Tuesday. The governor described it as "a very frank discussion" that focused 90 percent on slots.

"There is progress," Ehrlich told reporters yesterday. "There are a multitude of issues still to be dealt with. I believe the administration and the Senate have proven to be flexible."

Last month, the Senate approved a heavily amended version of Ehrlich's slots proposal, which would permit up to 15,500 slot machines at three racetracks and three nontrack facilities. Legislative analysts project the plan could eventually generate more than $800 million a year for public schools.

The House Ways and Means Committee -- which killed Ehrlich's slots proposal last year -- is set to hold hearings on gambling bills Tuesday and March 30.

House Democratic leaders -- reluctant to embrace gambling as the sole solution to Maryland's fiscal woes -- insist that if they pass slots, it will be part of a broader package that includes some kind of tax increase totaling more than $500 million.

Ehrlich insisted yesterday that he would not accept taxes as part of a deal with slots. "I believe there is room for compromise on just about every other issue," Ehrlich said, noting the speaker's concerns over where the facilities would be located, whether the state should own them, and whether a company should be permitted to own more than one slots license.

"Obviously a major issue for this administration is minority equity ownership, not simply vendorship," Ehrlich said, taking a shot at the speaker's demand that slots facilities be owned by the state and operated by private companies in exchange for a small share of revenues.

Neither Busch nor Miller would divulge the specifics of the meeting. "Loose lips sink ships," Miller said.

Busch and Ehrlich are expected to meet again this weekend.

Rickman hopes one idea legislators warm to is Ocean City. He points to polls that he has commissioned -- and other newspaper polls of Eastern Shore residents -- suggesting broader support for slots.

"Let's be honest. If you think about all the locations in the state, especially the Eastern Shore, what is the best?" said Rickman, who owns a Delaware track with slots as well as a future racetrack site in Allegany County that would receive slots under the Senate bill. "Ocean Downs is 168 acres. There are two highways on each side of it. It has water surrounding it on three sides. It's a no-brainer.

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