O'Malley says `limited' slots could help

May 17, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that "a limited number of slots at the tracks" could help save thoroughbred horse racing in Maryland, and that without passage of a modest gambling proposal, the Preakness will be lost.

"I believe and have for many years that we will not have the 17,000 racing jobs in Maryland" without the addition of slots, O'Malley said during a news conference in Annapolis, days before the race. "We will no longer have the open space that is horse-related open space in Maryland. ... And we will no longer have the Preakness if we continue to insist that racing in Maryland has to compete on the unlevel playing field as it does now with Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia."

O'Malley is readying himself for a difficult debate over how the state will close a $1.5 billion budget shortfall. Last week, the governor asked his Cabinet secretaries to find $200 million in cost savings, but O'Malley and top Democratic legislators have conceded recently that a longer-term solution will likely include some combination of tax increases and budget cuts.

O'Malley and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have said they would support a slots proposal as well. Miller, who introduced a gambling bill during the 2007 session as a means to spark discussion, believes slots could generate $800 million annually. As the session closed with inaction on the slots bill, however, he criticized O'Malley for not moving more quickly.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an ardent slots opponent, has so far remained in the way of such a plan.

"For the state of Maryland to experience $800 million in revenue from slots means that you would have to checker the Washington suburbs with facilities because the vast majority of participants would come from the Washington, D.C.-Virginia-points South corridor," Busch said yesterday.

Busch said the state would have to install between 25,000 and 30,000 machines to reap $800 million annually, as Miller predicts.

"I think Senator Miller is pipe-dreaming," Busch said.

The speaker said he is concerned about the "permanency" of slot machines. He said he would have to see a proposal before he could comment about his support, and he said that it is not the primary issue the state needs to tackle.

"I'm looking first and foremost at a comprehensive solution to the budget," Busch said. "I believe that's the one thing that the citizens of Maryland sent us here to do. Whether you have an expansion of gaming or not for [Maryland] racing to remain competitive as a tier one state, you do need a revenue stream, whether it comes from lottery revenues or other revenues."

O'Malley said yesterday that to keep Maryland as a top racing state, lawmakers need to reach "common ground" on slots.

"I'm in favor of a limited number of slots at the tracks preferably for the purpose of keeping those racing jobs and open space and the Preakness in Maryland," he said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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