Slots measure still has the look of a loser

Despite election, Assembly's opposed, O'Malley's indifferent

November 19, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

The joke for a while on the campaign trail was that Maryland voters who didn't want slot machines had two choices for governor: Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who opposed them, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose repeated attempts to legalize them routinely ended in failure.

But what voters picked instead was Option 3: Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who doesn't like to talk about slots but supports legalizing them at racetracks to protect industry jobs.

Now that the mayor is governor-elect, the powerful economic and political interests pushing for Maryland to join most of its neighboring states in legalizing slots have rekindled their campaign. Even Ehrlich has predicted that slots will pass under an O'Malley administration.

New budget numbers showing looming shortfalls - and the pressure on O'Malley to fulfill potentially expensive campaign promises - are making the drumbeat for gambling even stronger, as is the advent of slots in Pennsylvania, two years after a gambling bill passed there.

"In my opinion, [O'Malley is] going to have to realize this is an alternative he's not only going to want but will have to work toward," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the chief slots backer in the legislature.

Thomas Bowman, a former president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the horse industry has been devastated by competition from states with slots and might never fully recover. Now, he said, horsemen are watching to see if the presence of a pro-slots, Democratic governor will change minds in the legislature.

"Certainly there is a renewed interest in the potential for something to happen," Bowman said.

But an analysis of election results shows that the incoming General Assembly is no more likely to adopt a slots plan than its predecessor.

It's unclear whether the issue will even come up this year. Miller said last week that he won't introduce a slots bill unless O'Malley asks him to, and the governor-elect has given no indication that he's in any rush to do so.

The main stumbling block for slots in the past - in the House of Delegates - might have grown larger as a result of the election.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a staunch slots opponent, effectively killed slots legislation passed by Miller's Senate for four consecutive years.

In 2005, however, a limited slots bill - one that allowed fewer machines and less profit for the racing industry than versions backed by Ehrlich or Miller - passed the House with 71 votes, the bare minimum.

That bill came to a vote only because Busch wanted potentially vulnerable Democrats from pro-gambling districts to have a chance to vote for a slots bill before their re-election attempts. It failed because Busch refused to negotiate a compromise, and Miller wouldn't accept the House bill.

Since then, 36 of 141 delegates have been replaced because of retirements, deaths or election losses. Based on interviews with the new delegates and a review of their public statements, it appears that slots backers have made no progress in the House.

The two largest delegations, those in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, remain solidly anti-slots, and many of the new delegates from other parts of the state said they would only support a limited expansion of gambling.

"It would need to be the right plan before I would decide to vote for slots," said Shawn Z. Tarrant, a Democratic delegate-elect from Baltimore who is taking a seat that was held by a slots backer the last time the House voted on the issue. "We would need to do all we can to limit any negative impact on the community."

The cautious approach to slots is held by Republicans, too. Many conservative Republicans in the Assembly opposed expanded gambling before Ehrlich took office, but at his urging the GOP caucus became strongly pro-slots. In interviews, Republican delegates and delegates-elect still mostly said they support slots, but often with reservations.

"One of my particular concerns is locating slots in already challenged neighborhoods and communities," said Steve Schuh, a Republican delegate-elect from Anne Arundel County who will replace a slots opponent. "I don't think that very stressed and impoverished communities can stand the additional stress on their families or their community fabric of gambling."

It has proved difficult in the past to find locations for slots that win majority support in the House, and the question of where to put them might have become even tougher because of the election.

Laurel Park is widely viewed as one of the most likely locations for slots, and in the past four years Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens supported the idea. But she is leaving because of term limits, and her replacement, Republican John R. Leopold, opposed slots when he was in the House of Delegates.

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