Issue will return next year

Future: Industry experts, slots advocates and foes agree that Maryland has not seen the last of gambling proposals.

General Assembly

April 10, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

For the second year in a row, slots foes appear to have beaten back a deep-pocketed gambling industry's efforts to expand in Maryland.

But experts say it almost certainly will not be the last battle over casino-style gambling here.

The Maryland market is too lucrative to abandon, said Steven Rittvo, president of a New Orleans-based gambling consulting firm.

"As long as the state is facing a budget shortfall, I think it comes back until it passes or until there is an alternative revenue source," Rittvo said.

His company, the Innovation Group, did marketing studies for Maryland racetrack owners. State policy-makers used the firm's research to estimate revenues slots could generate for the state treasury.

"It's a terrific market," Rittvo said.

The Rev. Thomas A. Grey, who heads the Rockford, Ill.-based National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, agreed that Maryland is likely to see another push for slots next year.

"I've never seen the gambling industry turn around and walk away from as lucrative a pot as Maryland," said Grey, a veteran of numerous casino and slots fights around the country.

"It's absolutely going to come back up because you have a governor who is going to keep pushing it," he added. "Maryland is in play for them."

Grey said there are other reasons that bills to expand gambling are almost certain to be revived in Maryland: They generate hefty campaign contributions for politicians and a lot of business for lobbyists.

"It is to the politicians' interests to keep this alive - even if it wasn't going to pass and people didn't want it," he said.

Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of NOcasiNO Maryland, said it is inevitable that the gambling industry will return.

"There's too much money involved," she said. "The gambling forces have wanted Maryland since 1995. Why are they going to quit? Nothing's changed."

Rittvo said he wasn't surprised the slots bill in Maryland was defeated for a second time. It has taken three or four tries in many states to get a gambling bill passed, he said

Rittvo said it is difficult to balance competing interests and reach compromises that are essential to putting together a gambling bill that can win majority support.

"It took Louisiana, I think, three sessions," Rittvo said. "I know it took Illinois several sessions."

Pennsylvania is now going through similar contortions over expanding gambling. Gov. Edward G. Rendell this week voiced to reporters his frustration over the slow pace of negotiations with legislators on gambling legislation.

He had predicted a bill would pass before last Christmas, then by the end of February. The latest deadline he set, before a scheduled April 27 primary election, also is expected to pass with no action.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the chief legislative backer of slots here, said he is confident that expanded gambling will eventually come to Maryland.

"It might take until 2006, but it's going to happen," Miller said. "It's definitely going to happen. It has to happen regionally, it has to happen economically, it has to happen fiscally."

But to win, slots supporters will first have to overcome a determined group of Maryland anti-gambling activists.

Aaron Meisner, the coordinating chairman of stopslotsmaryland.com, said members of his group have learned a lot over the past two years.

"If it comes back, we are going to be better-prepared and better-funded," he said.

Staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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