Together, they hope to stop the slots

Strategy: Pa. and Md. activists say neighboring states need to stick together in the fight to keep gambling out.

April 18, 2004|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND'S gambling foes weren't the only ones celebrating when legislators rejected casino-style gambling for the second year in a row.

In Pennsylvania, it was welcome news to state Rep. Paul Clymer and other anti-gambling activists engaged in their own fierce fight against proposals to open Maryland's northern neighbor to 12 huge slot machine emporiums.

"The victory in Maryland helps us enormously," says Clymer, a Republican.

"It allows us to tell our constituents, `Look, Maryland has said they can survive without slots.' It takes away the argument that Maryland is about to do it and we need to rush to do it before they do it."

Maryland slots foes say they are hoping Clymer and his anti-gambling coalition succeeds in Pennsylvania as well -- for much the same reason. The less legalized gambling there is in the Mid-Atlantic region, they say, the less pressure to allow casino-style gambling in Maryland.

Indeed, a delegation of Maryland legislators and anti-gambling activists plan to travel to Harrisburg this month to meet with the Pennsylvania anti-gambling coalition to discuss strategies for defeating slots.

"It's partly to protect Maryland by urging Pennsylvania, on the merits, to reject slots," says Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is leading the group. Franchot says he hopes that the meeting will evolve into a broader effort against gambling expansion in the region.

"The gambling industry people are experts at pitting one state against another," Franchot says. "We are going to explore creating an alternative to that -- first, between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Then it could expand to other states."

Adds Aaron Meisner of stopslots maryland.com, "I'd love to see Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia stand together. If these three states can hold together, that's a big victory for the entire region."

Gambling proponents in Pennsylvania acknowledge that Maryland's decision to reject slots could have an impact on that state's gambling debate.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell has proposed allowing slots at four existing horse racing tracks, four new ones that would be built and four off-track sites.

"If Maryland had achieved slots it would have been additional pressure here in Pennsylvania because we would have been virtually surrounded by states with slots at tracks," says Thomas M. Kauffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association.

He noted that West Virginia and Delaware allow slots at their tracks to raise money for state government and to help support horse racing.

Kauffman says he hopes Pennsylvania will "level the playing field" and pass a bill allowing slots, but he doesn't see it as a done deal.

"I will be confident that we have slots at Pennsylvania racetracks when those slots are installed and go into operation," he says. "Between now and then, anything can happen. As we have seen in Maryland and other states, it ain't over until it's over."

Gambling proponents are pressing for a decision on slots before June 30 -- the deadline for Pennsylvania legislators to approve the state's budget. They begin a summer recess on July 1.

The gambling battle in Pennsylvania is, in some respects, a mirror image of the one in Maryland.

In Pennsylvania, Democrat Rendell's push for slots has encountered stiff resistance from Republican legislators who are in the majority party in the state Senate and House of Representatives.

The reverse was true in Maryland, where Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot proposal had support from his minority party, but he was defeated by Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates.

Gambling industry executives say they aren't reading too much into Maryland's decision to reject slots or the long-stalled efforts to get a gambling bill passed in Pennsylvania. They say they don't regard the Maryland defeat as a signal that the public's appetite for expanded gambling opportunities is on the wane.

Dean W. Hestermann, director of public affairs for Harrah's Entertainment, one of the nation's largest casino entrepreneurs, says it is always a struggle to craft gambling legislation to resolve such issues as the type of gambling to allow, the number and location of facilities, and the tax rates that should apply.

"It's always easier to kill legislation than it is to pass it," he says.

Hestermann says most people regard gambling as just another form of entertainment and support legislation to allow them to gamble locally. "Just because slot machine players aren't organized and busing themselves to hearing rooms does not mean there isn't an enormous and latent demand for gaming," Hestermann says.

Still, Maryland's decision to reject slots for the second year in a row appears to be strengthening the resolve of anti-gambling activists in neighboring states.

"Every time another state rejects gambling expansion, it helps to reinforce the concept that it is not good public policy," says Dianne M. Berlin of Pennsylvanians Against Gambling Expansion.

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