The company that owns Pimlico and Laurel race courses increased its pressure to legalize slot machines in Maryland yesterday, warning leaders in Annapolis that its stockholders are growing tired of losing money in the state
Dennis Mills, a vice chairman of Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian company that owns the two tracks in Maryland and others nationwide, said he did not come to the state to make threats.
But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said after a private meeting with company officials in the governor's mansion that they fear the company will pull out of the state and take the Preakness Stakes with it.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the chief slots skeptic in the General Assembly, did not attend the meeting. He said he learned of Magna's request only a day before and had a previous commitment. Nonetheless, Mills addressed his comments in a news conference to the speaker.
"I say to him, humbly, respectfully, that we believe the future of the Maryland thoroughbred industry and the Preakness are really in the hands of the speaker of the House," Mills said. "We reach out to him and ask him to be part of a peace-making exercise so we can have a bill."
Busch said yesterday evening that he has spoken repeatedly with Mills and other Magna officials and will do so again. But he said yesterday's meeting looked like nothing more than an attempt by Ehrlich and Miller to shift the blame for the failure of a slots bill in the just-ended legislative session.
Yesterday's meeting came with little more than a week to go before the Preakness, and slots supporters are using the annual attention on horse racing that comes with the Triple Crown to renew their push for gambling. Supporters say Maryland racing is at a competitive disadvantage because Pennsylvania passed a slots bill last summer, and West Virginia and Delaware tracks have slots.
For the first time in the three years since Ehrlich's election, the House passed a slots bill during the recently concluded General Assembly session, but Miller deemed it unacceptable and Busch refused to negotiate a compromise.
"This is a big set-up," Busch said. "Basically, this is Mike Miller and Bob Ehrlich trying to blame somebody else for the fact that they didn't take the House bill."
Mills said Magna would have accepted either the House bill or Senate's, which allowed more machines at more locations and gave a larger percentage of profits to track owners.
Miller said yesterday that he still has problems with elements of the House bill, such as the distribution of proceeds, but believes there is room for compromise. Ehrlich said he would like to call a special session to approve slots but won't unless he, Miller and Busch agree on a bill, an unlikely scenario.