- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Opponents of expanding gambling in Maryland are mobilizing again to fight any efforts by lawmakers to legalize slot machines.

They were joined yesterday by state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, who warned, “We’re in for the toughest fight of our lives.”

StopSlotsMaryland, a coalition of civic groups and religious organizations, is reconvening after a one-year break. Legislation to legalize slot machines in Maryland is expected to resurface as the state grapples with a $1.5 billion budget shortfall next year.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has said he supports limited slot machines at racetracks to save horse racing in Maryland and keep the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Officials with the Canadian company that owns Pimlico Race Course, home of the second leg of the Triple Crown, have said they need slot machine gambling to sweeten purses and stay competitive with states that allow slot machines.

Mr. Franchot, who said gambling preys on the poor, told members of the group at Calvary United Methodist Church that he was part of a record crowd of 121,263 at the Preakness on Saturday and didn’t see any slot machines.

“But you know what I did see when I drove into Preakness, I saw crushing poverty at Pimlico,” he said. “I saw abandoned homes. I saw abandoned cars, and it reminded me once again that slots are a tax on the very poorest to pay for rich peoples’ programs.”

It was a huge betting day, too. The total betting amount was $87.2 million, the Maryland Jockey Club said. That is the fourth highest amount in Preakness history. It came in behind the $91 million reported in 2005, $89.9 million in 2004 and $87.5 million in 2006.

Mr. Franchot also talked about “the bad old days” when slot machines were legal in Southern Maryland. Charles County legalized gambling in 1949, earning it the moniker “Little Vegas.” Slot machines were banned in 1967.

“We saw the crime, the corruption, the destruction of families, the destruction of communities,” Mr. Franchot said. “Been there. Done that, and that’s why we outlawed slots, and it’s why we should keep them illegal now.”

Aaron Meisner, who was chairman of the group from 2002 to 2006, said the coalition will be in “a David and Goliath kind of effort,” and he said members need to start raising money.

W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist who will be handling strategy for the group, described the political outlook for slots as “very murky.”

“I think that we still have our allies,” Mr. Carter said. “I think that until we get a bill, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going to happen.”

Mr. Carter said the group should be prepared for a special session, which Mr. O’Malley could call to address what has been a contentious issue for years.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, wants a special session. He has proposed allowing more than 15,000 slot machines at seven locations across the state, including four horse tracks. During the legislative session that ended April 9, Mr. Miller said the legalization of slot machines was almost inevitable because of the state’s financial situation.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, has said he will keep an open mind during the next slots debate. However, he has expressed trepidation about expanding gambling.

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