Call for slots referendum

O'Malley proposes to let voters decide

October 27, 2007|By Laura Smitherman and James Drew | Laura Smitherman and James Drew,Sun reporters

Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed yesterday a referendum on slots that would allow up to 15,000 machines in five Maryland locations - including Baltimore - and hand the decision to voters after years of legislative deadlock.

"It's time to let the people decide," O'Malley said, adding that he personally would vote for slots in a referendum.

Under the plan, slot machines would be limited to five places - one each in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany counties and Baltimore City. The only racetracks covered by the plan would be Laurel Park in Anne Arundel and Ocean Downs in Worcester, an O'Malley aide said.

The potential Baltimore site would be in the Middle Branch area, within a half-mile of Interstate 95 and Route 295. It does not include Pimlico Race Course.

The proposed referendum appeared to break the standoff over the issue between House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots foe, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a strong supporter. Both Democrats said they thought they would be able to get the necessary votes in the special session that begins Monday.

"My belief always has been a referendum makes the General Assembly and the governor put the best product on the ballot. It will help bring a resolution to this," Busch said.

The slots proposal, which is among six administration bills the legislature will consider, calls for a November 2008 referendum. Lawmakers will consider a bill authorizing the referendum and legislation on how the slots program would be administered.

O'Malley called the session to address the state's projected $1.7 billion budget deficit. He had hoped the legislature would approve slot machines to raise revenue, but the plan bogged down amid opposition in both chambers. The latest plan, if approved as a constitutional amendment in the referendum, could raise as much as $700 million a year, much of it targeted for education, O'Malley said.

With the controversial issue potentially moving to the ballot box, the debate is likely to get even more heated. A grass-roots campaign to keep slots out of the state is under way, and slots proponents warn that out-of-state gambling interests are likely to fund anti-slots initiatives because they fear competition. West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York have legalized slots and racetrack casinos.

"People who live near these locations will be very unhappy," said Aaron Meisner, the leader of Stop Slots Maryland. "You will see a very rapid shift in public sentiment. I can assure that the people of Cecil County and the Eastern Shore and Baltimore City will not be happy to see this, and they will come out in force."

Slots proponents say that Maryland is losing revenue to neighboring states that offer that kind of gambling. They also say that bringing slots to Maryland's racetracks would bolster a struggling horse racing industry.

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said he is encouraged that O'Malley's plan calls for up to $100 million a year to enhance horse racing purses and provide funds for the horse breeding industry.

Under O'Malley's plan, the State Lottery Commission would own the slot machines, which would be operated under licenses granted to companies that apply to a seven-member commission, including six to be appointed by the governor and one by the state treasurer. Only one license could be awarded for each location.

Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's legislative director, said the commission would consider a number of factors in choosing the bidders, including ownership, impact on area surrounding where they propose to install slots, and the percentage of minority ownership.

Bryce said Rosecroft Raceway didn't make the list of sites because of "significant" opposition in Prince George's County.

Lou Raffetto Jr., president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which is owned by Toronto-based Magna Entertainment Corp. and operates Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said the proposal for a slots facility in downtown Baltimore - but not at Pimlico - is "very disconcerting."

Asked whether it might mean closing Pimlico or moving the Preakness, Raffetto said, "We can't give any assurances as it relates to Pimlico or any of the tracks. All I can say as it relates to the Preakness is we can assure it will be run in 2008. Beyond that, I can't speak to anything."

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon told the governor in a letter: "While I remain opposed to legalizing slot machines at Pimlico Race Track or the Inner Harbor, I believe that the people of Baltimore are best served at this critical juncture with a bill that preserves the option for a slot machine facility in Baltimore City under certain conditions."

The slots issue has long pitted Miller against Busch, and the House speaker had warned that it would be difficult to get the votes in the House to pass legislation legalizing slots without a voter referendum.

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