- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

ANNAPOLIS In his relentless campaign to legalize slot machines, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. often talks about the daily exodus of Marylanders headed to tracks in nearby states where they gamble away their dollars millions every year.
Dollars, he says, that go to educate children and pay for health care in West Virginia and Delaware.
"Marylanders vote with their automobiles every night of the week," the governor says. "Aren't we all tired of getting our brains beat out by Delaware and West Virginia?"
As the General Assembly heads into the crucial final three weeks of the legislative session, this is Mr. Ehrlich's rallying cry: Keep the money at home.
"People are going to gamble. They have a right to do it in a free society," Mr. Ehrlich said in a recent interview. "The dollars we keep here will be spent here for a good purpose."
With slots already legal in Delaware and West Virginia and with Pennsylvania considering slot machine legislation this year, he says this is Maryland's best chance to cash in on the gambling bonanza.
The Republican governor's plan to put 3,500 slot machines at each of three race tracks in the Baltimore-Washington area is easily the most contentious issue of this year's 90-day session.
His bill is expected to pass the Senate, where Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's Democrat, is a strong supporter of slots, but is in trouble in the House of Delegates, where most of the key leaders are opposed.
The House on Friday approved a bill that would delay a decision on slots legislation to study how Maryland would be affected if thousands of slot machines are installed at racetracks.
With the state facing a two-year budget shortfall approaching $2 billion, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Miller predict the slots bill will be approved before the session ends April 7 because the state needs the money.
The administration says slot machines would bring in $1.5 billion a year, including about $650 million for track owners and about $77 million for horse owners and breeders. Most of the rest, an estimated $643 million, would be designated for public schools.
Mr. Ehrlich says slot machines would help save the Maryland racing industry and cover part of the cost of a six-year plan approved last year to increase aid to public schools by $1.3 billion.
A study by the state economic development agency estimates Marylanders spend about $400 million a year playing slot machines in other states, mostly at tracks in Delaware and West Virginia.
Mr. Ehrlich argues that if the legislature authorizes slot machines at Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft racetracks, most of that $400 million would remain in Maryland.
The administration also believes Maryland tracks would attract gamblers from the District and Virginia, many of whom now drive through Maryland on their way to tracks in Delaware and West Virginia.
The governor's message goes over well with the lunchtime crowd at the Pascal Senior Center in a suburban area south of Baltimore, which offers an occasional trip to Dover Downs.
For $12, seniors get a round-trip bus ticket to Delaware, a free lunch buffet and one or two $2 tickets to play the horses.
Deloris Brown and her friend Thelma Gayhardt say they like to play slot machines occasionally and would rather stay close to home than have to travel to Delaware.
"We live here. Why should we have to go to Dover in another state and put our money there when we can put our money here," Miss Brown says. "If it goes for education, I'm all for it."
Miss Gayhardt says it would be more convenient to go to nearby Laurel Park, a thoroughbred track between Baltimore and Washington.
"The people that don't want it, they don't have to go," she says. "The people that want to gamble will gamble."
Marion Meidenbauer was the lone voice against slot machines among a group of seniors sitting at a table waiting for lunch to be served.
"The wrong people gamble. People who don't have any money are the ones who look for pies in the sky," she says. "People who can't afford to go to Dover might gamble if it's in the neighborhood."
Chris, 78, a member of Gamblers Anonymous for 40 years who will not give his last name, says easier access to slot machines will produce more compulsive gamblers. Chris stopped gambling in 1963, but he vividly remembers the "dream world" he entered when he won $1,000 on a daily double when he was in college in 1946.
"For the next 18 years, all I thought about was playing horses," he says. "I know you are never going to stop gambling, but if you make it available and it's easy for people to do it, there are going to be a lot of people hurt by this."
Mr. Ehrlich acknowledges that some people can become addicted to gambling, and he would divert $5 million a year from slot machine earnings into a fund to treat compulsive gambling.
While Mr. Ehrlich stresses the importance of slot machine revenues to education, he also argues that slot machines are necessary to save a racing industry that dates to Colonial times.
Tom Chuckas, chief executive officer of Rosecroft Raceway, a harness track in Fort Washington, says tracks in West Virginia and Delaware are attracting many of the best horses from Maryland because slot machine revenues allow them to pay bigger purses to winners.
"We just can't compete," he says. Without slots, "the racing industry will progressively deteriorate."
Debate over slot machines has dominated the legislative session that began Jan. 7 and is scheduled to end April 8, and the fate of the governor's bill is very much in doubt.
The battle has cut across party lines. Mr. Ehrlich's biggest slots supporter is Mr. Miller, the Democratic leader of the Senate, while Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican, opposes slots.
In the House of Delegates, the situation is reversed, with Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, leading the opposition and Republican Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr., Baltimore County Repubican, trying to persuade Republican delegates to support their governor.
Mr. Ehrlich has the support of several business groups, the Maryland Farm Bureau and some labor unions.
He also has on his side an array of lobbyists hired by the racing industry, including Magna Entertainment Corp. of Ontario, Canada, which owns Pimlico and Laurel, and Centaur Racing LLC of West Lafayette, Ind., owner of Rosecroft.
But legislators are under pressure to oppose slots from StopSlotsMaryland.com, a coalition made up mostly of religious and civic organizations that are waging an intensive campaign to defeat the bill.
The Maryland Restaurant Association is also a member because many of its members worry that customers will spend more money at the tracks and less dining out.
Minor Carter, a spokesman for the coalition, says the number of people from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia who gamble at tracks in West Virginia and Delaware would not be sufficient to keep even one of the proposed casinos in the black.
"We are going to have more machines than Delaware and West Virginia," he says. "We are going to have to train a lot of new gamblers."
Dollars spent at the track will be dollars that will not be spent at restaurants, movies and other Maryland businesses, he says.
If Maryland and Pennsylvania join Delaware and West Virginia in the gambling business, "it's going to be a race to the bottom," Mr. Carter says.

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