- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland is getting boxed in on slots, with a petition for a gambling palace circulating in the District, legislation for legalizing slots in Pennsylvania winning approval, and betting establishments in Delaware and West Virginia seeking to lure Maryland gamblers.

“I think [Maryland lawmakers] are in the same quandary that we are in and they are almost foolish for not” approving slots, said Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, Philadelphia Democrat. “Now they are going to have another venue on their borders and they are still not protecting Marylanders from the evils of gambling, because it is so prevalent around them. All they are really doing is depriving themselves of the positive effects of gambling.”

Mr. Fumo is a sponsor of an amendment to put 37,000 slot machines in 14 locations across Pennsylvania, with the potential to increase the number to 61,000 in six months. The amendment, which was approved Thursday by the state Senate, was sent to the state House for approval. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, supports the legislation.

Marylanders spend $309 million a year on gambling in Delaware and West Virginia, which continually advertise their slot machines in Maryland.

In the District, a group of investors has until Tuesday to gather enough petition signatures to put a proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot. The group wants to build an entertainment complex on New York Avenue NE with 3,500 video lottery terminals.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has argued that slots revenue is needed to save the state’s horse-racing industry and help pay for a $1.3 billion education reform act. He stepped up the pressure last week.

“The question is not whether Marylanders will play slots,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, who wants to put 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks and two off-track sites along Interstate 95. “The question is where they will play and who will benefit.”

Mr. Ehrlich has the backing of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, but has been unable to gain support for slots in the Democrat-controlled House. Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, has led efforts to keep the administration’s bill off the House floor in the past two General Assembly sessions.

Mr. Busch instead has pushed for a $640 million income- and sales-tax increase to improve state revenue.

He said he would consider making slots a referendum item on the November ballot, but added that he was not concerned about gambling in neighboring states.

“I didn’t know we were in a race with Pennsylvania,” Mr. Busch said. “I don’t think it’s going to bring any more Marylanders running across state lines. I think it’s going to give Marylanders who do gamble broader choices.”

He also bolstered the House leadership’s stance against the slots bill by appointing Delegate Anthony Brown, a self-described progressive Democrat from Prince George’s County, to the position of majority whip.

“Delegate Brown has showcased incredible leadership since being elected to the House,” Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Brown says he “unequivocally” opposes slots until their impact is studied further.

“All I can say is the position of the House leadership is that we are willing to work with the governor,” Mr. Brown said. “Nothing is off the table.”

State Budget Secretary James “Chip” C. DiPaula Jr. said Mr. Brown’s appointment will not affect the administration’s lobbying efforts. “We look forward to working with all the House leadership,” he said.

Mr. DiPaula is working on an effort for Maryland to compete with 70,000 slot machines in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia. The number is expected to increase to 83,000 in the coming months.

West Virginia lawmakers approved slots in 1990 through a pilot program. The state now has 17,773 terminals — 10,548 at four racetracks and 7,225 at bars and taverns across the state. It has made $958 million in revenue in the first 11 months of fiscal 2004, including $743 million from the tracks.

Delaware introduced slots in December 1995 and now has 6,410 machines at three sites: Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. The state took in $524 million in 2003.

Mr. Fumo said Pennsylvania lawmakers decided they also needed a slots initiative once they realized they were surrounded by states with slot machines.

“If gambling were not at my borders, I would not be offering this amendment,” he said. “I think that in all of America you are going to see legalized gambling.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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