- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

Restaurant owners in Maryland have ended their long-standing opposition to slot machines at the state’s race tracks.

Marcia Harris, president of the Maryland Restaurant Association (MRA), said the group reversed its position after a survey of its 3,000 members found that 63 percent favored some form of gambling in the state. Miss Harris said slot machines appear to be the best way to ease the state’s growing budget shortfall.

“The information we now have is that this is the best thing for the state and we should get behind it,” Miss Harris said. “It’s the best of the currently available options.”

However, Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said yesterday that preliminary results show most of her group’s members who have answered the survey oppose slot machines. Surveys are due Oct. 15.

Miss Jones said 60 percent of about 30 members surveyed so far are opposed to slot machines. Her association has 217 members. She said her association will meet on Oct. 22 to decide whether to consider the slots plan.

“Our board of directors has always been opposed to slots,” she said. “But we thought we should ask the membership.”

Miss Harris said MRA supports limited, slot-only emporiums but not full-scale casinos. The association does not anticipate seeking approval for slots at restaurants unless they are broadly approved at businesses throughout the state. She said she sees no political support for “letting slots run rampant.”

The association was one of only a few business groups to oppose Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s proposal during last winter’s legislative session to allow Wal-Mart-sized slots casinos at four horse-racing tracks.

Mr. Ehrlich has said slots are critical to providing more money to public schools through a program known as the Thornton Commission education plan. The governor said he would find money in the state budget through 2005 for kindergarten through 12th grade, but has left future funding up to the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.

Barbara Knickelbein, co-chairwoman of the anti-slots group NOcasiNO Maryland, said she was surprised at MRA’s latest decision to support slot machines. She said the group has opposed slot machines since 1994.

“The statistics are mounting around the country as to the cannibalization of existing businesses,” Miss Knickelbein said. “Why do they think it’s not going to happen here?”

Fred Rosenthal, a member of MRA’s board of directors, said owners’ concerns about the impact slots might have on their businesses were eased after a delegation visited restaurants in Dover, Del., where there is a major racetrack casino.

“There was some loss of business in the beginning,” he said. “But, in the long run, over the past several years, they have not been negatively affected.”

The experience of restaurant owners in Delaware raised issues — such as racetrack casinos offering free or below-cost food and beverages — that could be addressed in Maryland slots legislation, Mr. Rosenthal said.

“When legislation is put forward, we’re asking for a seat at the table so we can have input” into the way a slots program is implemented, he said.

John Brown, owner of R.J. Bentley’s in College Park, said support for slot machines is not a unexpected reversal.

“When we were opposed to slots, the state was flush with cash; now the budget crisis is real,” said Mr. Brown, who is a member of MRA’s governmental relations committee. “This is an alternative that has to be considered because you just can’t go around cutting everything.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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