- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s new proposal to bring slots gambling to the state includes putting 4,000 machines at sites other than racetracks, a change the administration hopes will persuade lawmakers to pass the legislation.

“It is the same plan we introduced last year, except it has two potential locations that are off-track venues,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, told The Washington Times. “And there is a portion of the bill that appoints a blue-ribbon commission.”

The proposal, submitted late Monday night, details a plan to raise $2 billion a year by putting 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks and an additional 4,000 machines at two off-track locations along Interstate 95.

Under the governor’s original plan, the Pimlico track in Baltimore, and Laurel Racetrack and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George’s County, each would get 3,500 machines. A proposed track in Allegany County would get 1,000. The two additional locations would be owned privately or by the state.

The locations would be chosen later by the commission, which will be appointed by Mr. Ehrlich, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat.

One off-track location could be the proposed National Harbor development along the Potomac River in Prince George’s County. However, County Executive Jack B. Johnson has wavered on slots support.

Mr. Ehrlich said Delegates Jon S. Cardin, Baltimore County Democrat, and Clarence “Tiger” Davis, Baltimore Democrat, also are working on slots legislation.

Mr. Miller, a strong supporter of slot machines at tracks, said the Senate will pass the governor’s bill as it did last year, leaving it to Mr. Busch and the House to determine whether to legalize slot machines.

Mr. Busch helped defeat the bill last year in the House Ways and Means Committee after it passed in the Senate. He said track owners would get too rich from the deal. He also wanted to connect the proposal to a 1 percent sales tax increase, which the governor strongly opposes.

Mr. Busch said yesterday that the governor’s revised proposal to expand slots beyond racetracks is “an acknowledgment from him and his administration that there is no correlation between people who play [slots] and those who wager on horses.”

The speaker said the House committee will not introduce a bill and that slots gambling is not “the way we would solve the state’s [fiscal] problems.”

He also said if slots are legalized, it still would be a mistake to follow the governor’s suggestion to give track owners licenses and 39 percent of the profits.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, approved of Mr. Ehrlich’s revisions.

“I think the options that he puts on the table improves the bill,” Mr. Currie said. “It allows us to move beyond the racetracks.”

A draft report released yesterday by a House committee offered a plan that was markedly different from the one Mr. Ehrlich proposed. It suggests the state own gambling facilities and keep the largest possible share of slot revenues.

Instead of giving racetrack owners licenses to operate slots at the tracks, as proposed by the governor, the report presented at a meeting of the Ways and Means Committee stated that if Maryland legalizes slot machines, licenses should be awarded by competitive bidding.

The report also acknowledged that Maryland’s racing industry faces serious financial strains and that “strong consideration” should be given to dedicating revenues to helping the industry.

The draft report, the result of a six-month study by the committee, is expected to get a vote later this week. It largely reflects the thinking of Mr. Busch.

Mr. Ehrlich predicted his bill will pass in the House if Mr. Busch allows a vote and said his proposal was a “good-faith effort to meet the speaker’s concerns.”

The draft report stated the legislature should consider allowing only one license per company. Mr. Ehrlich’s bill would permit two licenses for Magna Entertainment Corp., a Canadian company that owns Laurel and Pimlico. However, Mr. Ehrlich said that if Mr. Busch insists on allowing only one license per company, “obviously Magna will get one license.”

The report also suggested increasing purses for winning horses by $70 million and boosting the fund for breeders by $10 million.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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