Senate president pushes more slots

Gambling in Prince George's could save harness track, Miller says

January 14, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | Baltimore Sun reporter

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants a slot-machine parlor in his native Prince George's County, a desire that threatens to inflame the gambling debate in Annapolis once again as lawmakers consider minor changes to bolster the state's fledgling slots program.

Miller, a Democrat who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties, said Thursday that he is in discussions with Prince George's leaders and others about bringing gambling to the county to help save Rosecroft Raceway, a long-struggling harness track. Slots could go at Rosecroft, he said, or at the National Harbor development on the Potomac River or at an equestrian center in Upper Marlboro.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Democrat who represents the area that includes Rosecroft, said he holds a "social opposition" to slots and would prefer to see poker and other high-stakes card games at the track, something Miller said he could also endorse.

Still, Muse, a pastor, said, he is "open to looking at all possible options" to save the racing facility. While Miller exerts much influence in Annapolis, the hurdles for expanding gambling are numerous.

Maryland voters would likely have to approve a plan, and Gov. Martin O'Malley and other top lawmakers said they are reluctant to reopen debate two years after a General Assembly battle that resulted in lawmakers approving a referendum approved at the ballot box in 2008.

Asked about Miller's comments, O'Malley said, "This is the first I've heard of it."

The governor said he is "not looking to go backward" this legislative session to discuss issues that have already been settled.

If the plan passed Miller's Senate, its fate in the House of Delegates would be uncertain. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he knows of no widespread support for more gambling among Prince George's delegates.

"No one from Prince George's County stepped up to the plate" to ask for slots during the session in which lawmakers approved a plan to present to voters, Busch said. "In fact, that county was adamantly opposed at the time."

Del. Gerron S. Levi, a Prince George's County Democrat who said she is running for county executive, said she opposes slots because the industry is "very damaging to our communities" and because, nationally, gambling proceeds "aren't the [state] budget panacea that they're made out to be."

Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, who has opposed slots in the county, has not spoken to Miller recently about gambling, a spokesman said. Term limits mean this is Johnson's final year in office.

Lawmakers will likely have other slots issues to consider this session.

One year after applications for five slots licenses were submitted, the state has approved three developments. One on the Eastern Shore and one in Cecil County could open this year.

The state rejected an application for a Baltimore facility and received no complete bids for Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland.

Donald C. Fry, chairman of the state slots location commission, said his group will meet next week to finalize its recommendations to lawmakers. He said his group has no plans to recommend expanding gambling to other counties.

He said he is still gathering ideas from Western Maryland lawmakers but anticipated suggesting that the General Assembly tweak the requirements for the Rocky Gap site to attract bidders.

Lawmakers could reduce the amount of capital investment required, lower the licensing fee or adjust the location without taking the issue back to voters, Fry said.

"We have had considerable discussion about what if anything we can do to enhance the opportunities for Rocky Gap to have a successful bidder," Fry said. "The question is whether there would be sufficient traffic at that site to justify the sort of investment we now require."

Seeking new bids for a Baltimore license will probably not require the involvement of state lawmakers, Fry said. He said he will be meeting soon with city officials and representatives of incoming Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to discuss the project before seeking new proposals.

Meanwhile, a group whose bid for a Baltimore license was rejected has filed a protest with the Maryland Board of Contract Appeals. The slots commission tossed the application of the Baltimore City Entertainment Group in December because the panel wasn't convinced the partners could raised the money for a $187 million project.

The group, led by a Canadian home-builder, is contesting that decision in part because they said the state did not set firm deadlines on when fees were due.

The appeals board did not return phone calls Thursday.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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