Slots vigilance

April 04, 2005

WITH ONE week left in this year's session of the Maryland General Assembly and bills to legalize slot machines in limbo, the full-court press is on. Magna Entertainment, owners of the Laurel and Pimlico racetracks, who say they believe wholeheartedly in the racing business (as long as they can prop it up with slots money), played host to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and certain legislators last week. And predictably, Annapolis is abuzz with rumors of an 11th-hour deal.

There are several good reasons why this is highly unlikely, not least the deeply dug-in animosity between Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the chief slots-at-the-tracks proponent, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who for three years now has responsibly blocked the state from the bad public policy of funding itself with dramatically expanded gambling.

And it's not just that the House and Senate slots bills are miles apart; it's that neither passed its respective chamber with much room to spare. (Even Mr. Miller, who tightly controls the Senate, had to twist arms to pass his slots-for-tracks bill for the third time.) Moreover, it's still an open question whether the governor really wants slots - or would rather campaign next year against Mr. Busch's principled stand.

Still, high vigilance is in order, and that will continue to be the case - if only because so many interests are so desperately pushing for big handouts from a slots bill, and that of course has translated into a river of campaign contributions to state politicians.

It's telling that even as the House has stood up to the pressure for slots, Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, has failed for three years to even get a committee hearing on his bill to ban political donations from the gambling industry; the committee in question is run by Del. Sheila E. Hixson, another Montgomery Democrat, who has received donations from companies controlled by one of the big slots seekers, William Rickman Jr.

With Annapolis so openly vulnerable to financial influence, it may well be up to local politicians to block the gambling juggernaut.

In that vein, Frederick County commissioners should be praised for seeking a zoning change to exclude slots parlors, a move taken after the House bill designated the county as a slots site. The other Maryland jurisdictions already on the record as opposed to having slots in their communities - among them, Montgomery, Prince George's and Cecil counties - should consider similar moves. Given the standoff in Annapolis, this might seem like overkill. But with all the easy money in play, that's hardly the case.

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