- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to present legislation this week that would expand slot-machine gambling to locations other than horse tracks and possibly cut either the Pimlico or Laurel Park track out of the action, said an administration official.

The governor’s new bill to legalize slot-machine gambling, which is a revamped version of last year’s proposal that died in a House committee, also will likely increase profits to local governments in which the racetracks or slots palaces would be located.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, revised the plan, in part, as a compromise for critics.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has said the city, which is home to the Pimlico track, was being shortchanged.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the chief foe of Mr. Ehrlich’s original plan, says the track owners would get rich at the state’s expense.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, orchestrated the death of the governor’s original bill in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The committee is expected to issue a report tomorrow that supports Mr. Busch’s plan for state-owned slots palaces.

The governor will introduce his slots bill in the Senate this week, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

Last year, the governor’s bill passed in the Senate, largely because of the backing of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat.

Since taking office a year ago, Mr. Ehrlich has made putting slots at horse tracks a cornerstone of his budget agenda and of his pledge to save Maryland’s flagging horse-racing industry. The governor originally planned to put 10,500 slot machines at four horse tracks to give the state $700 million a year, which was earmarked for a public-education reform plan known as the Thornton initiative. The state’s share also would have helped Mr. Ehrlich reduce the state’s recurring budget shortfall without increasing taxes.

The track owners’ cut would have been about $300 million a year.

Maryland horse-racing industry insiders expect the new bill will include slots at the same locations as last year: Pimlico, Laurel Park, Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County and Little Orleans, a track planned near Cumberland by William J. Rickman Jr., owner of the Ocean Downs track near Ocean City.

The governor is still expected to propose 10,500 slot machines, though the number allotted to each locations could change. The machines would be divided among as many as six license holders who operate the slots venues, including two or three locations other than horse tracks, said the administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort near Cumberland and the planned National Harbor resort on the Potomac River in Prince George’s County are two new locations being discussed by Mr. Ehrlich’s slots team.

The governor also is expected to increase the share of slots profits going to the jurisdictions in which slots would be located. Increasing the 3.61 percent cut offered last year may win support of city or county leaders and sweeten the pot for the influential General Assembly delegations from Baltimore and from Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

Mr. Busch faulted Mr. Ehrlich’s original plan for giving a monopoly to track owners, especially Joseph A. DeFrancis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club.

To win Mr. Busch’s support, or at least persuade the speaker to let the bill go to a vote on the House floor, the governor’s policy team has considered giving one slots license to the Maryland Jockey Club and Magna Entertainment Corp., joint owners of Pimlico and Laurel Park.

“Magna may be forced to look at a one-license situation,” the official said.

The Jockey Club and Magna would have to choose between banking on the appeal of Pimlico’s name or the appeal of Laurel’s suburban location.

Both tracks need about $300 million in renovations to accommodate a slots palace, but Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County is considered an easier site to develop than Pimlico in Baltimore.

The choice between Pimlico and Laurel could decide the fate of the Preakness Stakes, the second race in the Triple Crown, which has been run annually at Pimlico since 1909. The steady deterioration of Pimlico has provoked speculation in recent years that the Preakness might move to a new home, perhaps outside of Maryland.

“We are not in a position to make a call like that, and we don’t want to make that call,” said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club. “But that certainly has been something [Mr. Busch] has said.”

Mr. Capps also said that leaving out either Pimlico or Laurel, the state’s premier thoroughbred tracks, would be bad for Maryland racing. “Pimlico needs to be part of the mix, as does Laurel,” he said.

Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said that the governor was well aware of the importance of keeping the Preakness in Maryland. “His plan was not just to save horse racing, but to keep the ‘Super Bowl’ of racing here,” he said.

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