- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that a special legislative session on legalizing slot machines remains a faint possibility, even as neighboring jurisdictions step up efforts to attract Maryland gamblers with gaming halls.

“I have not ruled out a special session,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, told The Washington Times.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, is pushing his state legislature to approve by the end of this month a bill that would legalize slot machines at casinos and race tracks.

Gambling palaces in West Virginia and Delaware continually advertise their slot machines in Maryland news outlets. And a group of investors Wednesday presented D.C. officials with a plan for an entertainment complex on New York Avenue NE that would include 3,500 video terminals. The investors hope to put the issue on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday that talks on slots continue between House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat.

However, he is not optimistic about the Democratic-controlled General Assembly approving his plan to put as many as 15,500 slot machines at four horse tracks and two off-track sites along Interstate 95.

Mr. Busch led the defeat of Mr. Ehrlich’s slot proposal during the governor’s only two General Assembly sessions but recently said he would consider putting a referendum on the November ballot.

“It is not a preferred option,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

A recent poll shows 54 percent of Marylanders favor slots, but Ehrlich staffers say the governor needs more details about the referendum, including venues and number of machines, before agreeing.

Political observers say Mr. Ehrlich is reluctant to agree to a referendum because state lawmakers could write the bill with such specifics so that nobody would vote for it.

Mr. Ehrlich says slots are needed to save the horse racing industry in the state, reduce the state’s projected $1 billion budget shortfall and finance the $1.3 billion Thornton Education Act.

State lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano said yesterday that there in no longer an “urgency” for a special session on slots — and possible agreement on a referendum — because new reports show expected tax revenue could reduce the shortfall to about $300 million.

There are more than 70,000 slot machines in neighboring Delaware, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia, and that number is expected to increase to 83,000 within the coming months.

Pennsylvania’s most ambitious proposal calls for 14 licenses with more than 60,000 slot machines.

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

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

Republican strategist Kevin Igoe doesn’t think Maryland lawmakers will change their minds anytime soon.

The probability of Pennsylvania and the District “getting slots has already been factored in to the calculations in Maryland,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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