Agreement shows slots compromise is possible

April 13, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The many groups that make up Maryland's horse racing industry fought among themselves for so long that at times it seemed they would never be able to coexist.

A sense of hopelessness about their infighting eventually set in, bearing a striking resemblance to the continuing political standoff that prevents the approval of slots gambling, which the industry says it needs to compete with racetracks in surrounding states that have slots.

The fact that the many Maryland industry groups, which include thoroughbred and standardbred horsemen and track owners, could sit down for three months and hammer out a landmark compromise, announced Tuesday, demonstrates that sometimes even seemingly impossible stalemates can be overcome.

At the very least, the "Cross-Breed Agreement" - the title of the landmark compromise, which legislates peace until 2021 - should remind the racing industry and its supporters not to give up on slots, even though the chances of their passage seem remote at this point.

If the seemingly stalemated thoroughbred and standardbred breeders and track owners can compromise on a broad range of issues, as they did, the politicians on either side of the slots debate can compromise, too.

So, how about it, gang?

The differences the industry groups faced actually were more daunting than those holding up slots; for years, the industry resembled one of those incomprehensible Third World civil wars in which countless factions with myriad agendas are all simultaneously at odds. The notion of peace was almost laughable.

The slots debate, by contrast, always has been pretty straightforward: One side is for them, the other opposed.

The sides barely sat down at all to try to broker a deal during the 2006 General Assembly session because neither wanted to touch the high-profile, politically sensitive issue in an election year. But the atmosphere will be different in 2007. And who knows what the November elections will bring?

Regardless of what happens, there almost certainly will be a better chance for slots to be approved during the 2007 session, especially if the opposing sides take a sensible approach to compromising, following the example the racing industry groups used on the "Cross-Breed Agreement."

The groups hadn't agreed on much of anything in years beyond the fact that horses have four legs, but they dug in and found the middle ground on issues ranging from simulcasting rights to revenue sharing to regulations governing off-track betting parlors. Longtime observers of the state's racing scene almost fainted when they heard about the extent of the compromising that was achieved.

The opposing sides of the slots debate could at least lay the foundation for a similar, surprising success if they start by meeting in the middle on one critical issue - the size of the proposed Maryland slots franchise.

It originally was conceived to be just big enough to give the racing industry the boost it needed, but it swelled over the years as more and more social and political factions demanded their cut of the new revenue stream to help fund various programs. The overloaded concept eventually just ground to a halt amid arguments about how and where to put so many slots franchises.

Now that the state has a budget surplus that supposedly can help fund those other issues, it's time to scale back the slots idea to its original size. Put the bulk of the machines at Laurel Park, and maybe try to find another site, two at most. That's it.

Use slots to bolster the state's racing scene, per the original plan. That's it.

Without such a compromise, the state racing scene is going to continue to struggle, with more and more horsemen leaving to run for bigger purses in slots states such as Delaware and West Virginia. This is an immutable if-then equation. Horsemen follow purse money. Maryland is going to continue to have problems unless its purses go up.

Along those lines, the General Assembly dealt the industry yet another blow in the just-concluded session by refusing to grant a $15 million purse subsidy for this year. But the state's politicians have long fretted about giving the racing industry much of anything because the admittedly fractious industry was unable to solve its own problems, and, frankly, it was hard to blame them.

Hopefully, things will improve with the signing of the "Cross-Breed Agreement," which illustrates not only that the state racing industry is, in fact, capable of solving its own problems, but also - and perhaps most importantly - that the industry hasn't given up on itself despite all these years of sour news.

The industry's leaders deserve credit for their willingness to compromise and forge an important agreement. It's a sign that all is not lost, and that solutions are always possible.

It would be nice to see the decision-makers in Annapolis follow their lead.

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