Hopes, lobbyists persist for slots passage

Scenarios include a bill for Laurel only, Senate adopting House version

April 01, 2005|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Slots may fail in the General Assembly again this year, but lobbyists haven't stopped pushing for them.

Tonight, for example, the General Assembly's fiscal leaders have been asked to share cocktails and conversation with the Miss USA pageant contestants at a charity event at Pimlico Race Course.

The invitation from Maryland Jockey Club executive Joseph A. De Francis and track owner Magna Entertainment Corp. is just one example of the last-minute push - fueled by speculation, wishful thinking and creative minds - to resuscitate a slots plan before lawmakers adjourn for the year April 11.

Most legislators say the slots issue appears dead for the third consecutive year since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s election.

A Senate bill passed in February would allow 15,500 machines at seven locations. In the House of Delegates, Speaker Michael E. Busch yielded to pressure and allowed a floor vote on a bill that would put 9,500 machines at four venues. That proposal passed by a single vote.

Busch says he can't change a comma in the House bill without the majority evaporating. There are no serious talks toward a compromise.

But that hasn't stopped legislative slots supporters and lobbyists from trying. As is common during the General Assembly's final days, rumors are swirling about possible tactics, bills, deals and swaps that could get a slots bill approved.

"You never know what is going to happen at the last moment of the session," said Del. Brian R. Moe, a Prince George's County Democrat and chief deputy majority whip. "We all know that's how it works down here. I think most people feel it's dead, but there is always that possibility it could happen anytime between now and 11 days from now."

Under one scenario making the rounds, only Laurel Race Course in Anne Arundel County would get slot machines. The Magna-owned course is the one constant in everyone's slots plans. It could bid for a license under the House version; the Senate plan almost would certainly award it one.

Ehrlich communications director Paul Schurick said he's heard a spike in talk about the Laurel-only slots option in the last few days. The idea is appealing, he said, because the track is centrally located in the state and the owners have invested more than $20 million in renovations.

"It's like The Wizard of Oz - the answer was right in front of us the whole time," Schurick said.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the Republican whip from Baltimore County, called a Laurel-only slots plan "within the realm of possibility."

"But I think that's just one of the options floating out there," he said. "There are probably hundreds."

The Laurel-only plan appears unattractive to Busch, however. It would do just what he has been trying to avoid for three years: grant an entitlement to make millions of dollars to one well-connected business.

De Francis, head of the Jockey Club, has directed thousands in political contributions over the years, including $200,000 from a racing group he controls to a national legislative committee headed at the time by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"Laurel-only is laughable," said Gerard E. Evans, a lobbyist for the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "That would be equivalent to dropping an atomic bomb on the House."

Pressure for slots is coming from only a few places. Where once the governor and others argued they were needed to balance the budget and provide money for a $1.3 billion public schools initiative, those arguments have faded as the economy has improved and the legislature has passed one budget after another that funds education without raising taxes.

This year, Ehrlich said slots were needed for school construction. But the House and Senate appear poised to agree on a capital budget plan that spends more than $200 million next year on school construction - at least $50 million more than the governor proposed - without gambling proceeds.

Some lawmakers, however, are miffed that Marylanders' gambling dollars are spent on slots in Delaware, West Virginia and, soon, Pennsylvania.

"We had an opportunity to get ahead of the curve, and it cost us $800 million this year alone," Miller said.

To recapture that money, another possibility is under discussion in Annapolis. Under this scenario, Miller would wait until the final day of the session and vote on the House-approved slots plan.

"That's been the biggest rumor of the past couple of days," Moe said.

Miller rejects it. "No chance in hell," he said yesterday. Both the Senate and House versions "are in the House of Delegates. If anything is going to happen on slots, it has to come from the House of Delegates."

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