Racing executives try to reopen slots issue

Gambling interests offer plan to put legalization before voters in Nov.

Md. officials show little interest

September 16, 2004|By Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin | Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Racing executives and other gambling interests made a last-gasp pitch yesterday for putting a plan to legalize slot machines before voters in November, but lawmakers expressed little interest.

The so-called compromise plan, apparently backed by deep-pocketed interests such as Maryland Jockey Club principal Joseph A. De Francis and bakery magnate John Paterakis, would authorize a Nov. 2 referendum for 21,500 slot machines at eight locations.

That's a larger number of machines than the 15,500 at six locations that the state Senate approved this year. The new plan would split 5,000 machines between two unspecified locations in Baltimore and the same number at two Prince George's County locations.

Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County would get 4,000 machines, a boon to Magna Entertainment Corp. and the Maryland Jockey Club. Rocky Gap lodge, Dorchester County and Cecil County would get 2,500 each.

But the proposal did little to break the slots stalemate in Annapolis. And it also faces another obstacle: The deadline for getting the plan on November's ballot was yesterday.

Lawmakers would have to meet in special session and propose the referendum as a constitutional amendment. They also could vote to change the deadline for ballot language, but elections officials say that making last-minute changes would be costly and difficult.

A final attempt by the governor, Senate president and House speaker to get a slots proposal on the ballot collapsed last week. House leaders said this plan did nothing to make them want to try again.

"Why reinvent this?" House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "Why go up and down this emotional roller coaster?"

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has been one of the most forceful slots backers, said he would not consider a plan unless Busch moved first.

"I'm not going to deal with it. I'm not going to give it the time of day," Miller said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. also said he was not interested in more discussions unless Busch changed his position.

"To some extent, it's not relevant," Ehrlich said. "It's not ripe."

Neither De Francis nor Paterakis returned telephone messages. Paterakis has been talked about as potentially involved in a slots deal either at his holdings at Inner Harbor East or as part of ownership of a downtown "supertrack."

Last week's attempt at a slots compromise collapsed in part because of the objections of delegates in large African-American majority jurisdictions, Prince George's County and Baltimore. They said they feared their neighborhoods would be overrun by gambling. The new plan appears to offer little to mollify them.

The new plan would require that at least one of the licenses go to a minority-controlled company or to a location owned by a minority company.

But it would also allow an additional site in Prince George's and leave site selection to a panel consisting of the state treasurer and two representatives each of the governor, Senate president and House speaker.

"I don't think I could buy into it, and I think it would be difficult for some of my colleagues to do so as well, given that we don't know where they would go, and four of the seven commissioners would make the decision," said Del. Obie Patterson, a Prince George's Democrat.

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