Ehrlich uses Laurel visit to press for legalized slots

Lawmakers asked to work on negotiating plan for bill

March 29, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. plunked down yesterday in front of the Horse Wizard, a video terminal with flashing lights, whistles and beeps that's the closest thing Laurel Park can get to slot machines without a breakthrough in the legislative stalemate in Annapolis.

The governor went to the racetrack to meet with Maryland Jockey Club President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph A. De Francis and to see the millions of dollars in improvements that Laurel's parent company, Magna Entertainment, has made to the track in recent months - including the Horse Wizard.

Ehrlich took the opportunity to call once again for the state legislature - particularly House Speaker Michael E. Busch - to negotiate a plan to legalize the slot machines the industry says it needs to stay competitive with tracks in neighboring states.

"I'm going to ask the speaker again, respectfully, to sit down. I think he would. I hope he would," Ehrlich said.

Both chambers of the legislature passed slots bills this year, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller rejected the House of Delegates plan, and the House speaker has refused to negotiate his chamber's differences with the Senate version.

Ehrlich said yesterday that the House slots plan would be "better than nothing," but he said it wouldn't do as much for the horse racing industry or the state's coffers. The Senate version would give the state an estimated $915 million in revenue annually; the House version would offer the state about $330 million each year.

De Francis, who would be well-positioned to get a slots license at Laurel under the House plan, wouldn't say whether he thought Ehrlich and Miller should have accepted the House bill.

"I don't talk about politics. I just talk about horse racing," he said.

Busch said yesterday that nothing has changed his mind about the likelihood that an amended slots bill could pass his chamber. The House bill, which has fewer machines than the Senate version and keeps slots away from several jurisdictions, including Prince George's County and Baltimore, that don't want them, got 71 votes, the minimum number to pass.

Ehrlich said he wouldn't accept a location in Frederick County, which the House bill included, and would like some of the proceeds to pay for annual operating expenses for the state's schools.

But Busch noted that several delegates have said they wouldn't vote for the House bill a second time, and none of those who voted against it originally have said they would support it if it came up again.

"I couldn't re-create that vote if I wanted to," Busch said. If Ehrlich wanted slots, he should have pressured Miller to accept the House bill, Busch said.

Even without legislation, Laurel has created a slots-parlor feel in its Horse Wizard room. The terminals are arrayed in banks in a windowless room where lights slowly shift from yellow to green to blue to purple to red and back to yellow again. The only horses visible are the ones on video monitors.

De Francis said Horse Wizard works like off-track wagering and is designed to be more user-friendly for casual gamblers who are comfortable with ATMs and computers but might be intimidated by betting on horses.

"It's good for people who are not familiar with the teller window and all the complicated hieroglyphics that go with betting on horse racing," he said.

But slot machines they are not. When Ehrlich sat down at one of them, De Francis set him up with a $20 credit on the machine - they neither take nor dispense cash - and the governor was left to choose how much to bet on which horse. That choice was easy: General Josh, in honor of Ehrlich's youngest son, Joshua. He tapped the General Josh icon on the screen and another for a $15 bet.

Small pictures of horses then spun on the screen, similar to the cherries and bars on a slot machine, although that was just for show. The results of his bet would have to wait on the start of the fifth race of the afternoon at Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio.

A clock on the governor's terminal counted down the seconds until the start of the race while a flat-screen monitor overhead showed the horses lining up on the track that had turned sloppy from rain.

"Maybe he's a mudder," Ehrlich said.

At 3:03 p.m., they were off.

Upward Bound started off in the lead, while General Josh, who evidently did not love the slop as much as the governor had hoped, lagged several places behind.

About a minute and 15 seconds later, Ehrlich's horse crossed the finish line in fourth, and the governor's credit account was $15 the poorer. He didn't stick around for the next race.

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