Slots debate unheated this year

Despite strong backing by Miller, opponents say they are unconcerned

General Assembly

March 06, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Slots opponents not concerned Slot machine gambling proponents are set to make their most urgent plea yet for Maryland to approve expanded gaming today, saying it's needed to stave off fiscal ruin for the state and to protect the horse industry.

But despite a looming $1.3 billion budget shortfall next year and renewed threats to cut racing days, slots opponents, who have gotten the best of the debate for the past four years, are greeting today's state Senate committee hearing with a yawn.

"I guess I'll go," said Aaron Meisner, the former head of StopSlots Maryland. "It's kind of a waste of time."

The slots issue has been the focus of intense debates in Annapolis for the past four years, but this General Assembly session, the topic received little attention as backers and foes alike said they expected the issue to be wrapped up in a comprehensive budget package next year.

Last week, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller introduced a slots bill, but his current proposal - pretty much the same one he has tried in the past - isn't generating near the fervor that gambling proposals did in previous years, when they had the strong backing of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Many of the arguments that slots backers have previously made for expanding gambling have only intensified in the past year. The state's budget situation has worsened, a problem that proponents say could largely be fixed by slots, which are projected to pour as much as $800 million a year into the state coffers.

And competition from surrounding states has increased pressure on Maryland's horse industry. West Virginia and Delaware have long used slots to supplement racing purses. Two years after Pennsylvania approved slots, the machines recently went online there. Meantime, Virginia is considering a plan to allow slot-like machines at Colonial Downs, east of Richmond.

In Pennsylvania, slots are paying off so handsomely that Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, is pushing to accelerate a plan for property tax relief. However, gambling has not been a panacea for the budget, and the state might increase other taxes.

Miller introduced his slots bill last week, saying he didn't expect it to pass this session but that he wanted to begin a dialogue on what he says is a critical component of any fix to Maryland's budget woes.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who led the opposition to slots in the last term, remains resolutely opposed to expanded gambling. Still, Miller said, this year's debate is important.

"In the first year in the House, we didn't get a hearing," said Miller, a Democrat. "In the second year, we didn't get a vote. In the third year, we didn't get a conference committee. We're making progress. It's incremental, but we'll get it done."

But what has changed since last year is that Miller can no longer count on the strong backing of the state's chief executive.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who defeated Ehrlich, a Republican, at the polls in November, is nominally pro-slots. He supports a limited slots program at racetracks, but he has said he wants to consider the issue next year, along with other measures to balance the budget.

While Ehrlich personally urged committees to back slots, O'Malley doesn't plan to go to today's hearing or to send someone to speak on his behalf.

"If it's introduced for discussion purposes only, we'll go and listen to the discussion," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

Representatives of the horse racing industry say they will testify at the hearing to remind legislators that their business continues to suffer from competition in states with slots at the racetracks.

Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, will testify at the hearing, along with members of a union that represents track workers, said his spokesman, Mike Gathagan. Competition from states where slots supplement purses has forced the Jockey Club to cut back to 184 days of racing at Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.

"We've just continued to cut and cut and cut, and we're going to have to cut some more," Gathagan said.

The Maryland Horse Breeders Association planned to send a representative to today's hearing to give legislators a sense of urgency, executive director Cricket Goodall said.

"Horse people are leaving the state," she said. "It's something we're not sure we can recover from."

And the Maryland Chamber of Commerce will be on hand to advocate for slots as a way to balance the budget without relying completely on tax increases.

But slots opponents said they have seen this show before. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee remains solidly pro-slots, and Miller's lieutenants in the Senate are still determined to see the president's top priority pass.

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