- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland horse-racing leaders pleaded for financial aid yesterday before a Senate committee, just hours after they canceled the second most prestigious race in the state.

The leaders told the Senate Finance Committee that they need $30 million over the next two years to stay in business and that the industry would support legalizing slot machines and increasing taxes.

However, Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has said he will not consider legalizing slots or increasing taxes this year. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he would not support slots this year, but has not ruled out the idea completely.

“We’d support any [slots] legislation, even if it’s tied to a tax package,” said Alan M. Foreman, counsel to the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

The plea was issued three hours after the Maryland Jockey Club announced that it would cancel the Pimlico Special, the $500,000 race run the day before the Preakness and featured in the movie “Seabiscuit.”

“Unfortunately, we have no choice,” said Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. “We must do everything we can to keep our average daily overnight purses for our local horsemen as high as possible.”

State leaders have been hesitant to deal with slots and taxes this legislative session, though they support both.

Mr. Busch’s counterpart in the Senate said he isn’t discounting anything.

“I wouldn’t say anything is off the table … just because the governor didn’t introduce legislation,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat. “We’re just going to have to see what happens.”

Slots supporters said they can’t wait one more session.

“We’re in deep [trouble] here with racing in Maryland,” said John Franzone, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission.

Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, Charles County Democrat, said he scheduled the hearing only to brief new legislators about the “dire shape” of the state’s horse-racing industry, not to debate slots.

However, the debate quickly turned to slots.

In his four years as governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, lobbied hard for legalized slots, but he encountered heavy opposition, led by Mr. Busch, in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Mr. O’Malley, who defeated Mr. Ehrlich in November, expressed support for legalizing slots during his campaign.

“The governor is committed to keeping the Preakness in Maryland and he supports a limited number of slot machines at the racetracks for the purpose of supporting the horse-racing industry,” said O’Malley spokesman Rick Abruzzese.

Slots supporters have donated more than $80,000 since the election to help retire $500,000 in campaign fees for Mr. O’Malley.

The House supported $15 million in aid for the horse-racing industry last year, but the bill died in the Senate.

Fighting gangs

With serious gang problems spreading to rural areas, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and state’s attorneys asked lawmakers yesterday to give them prosecutorial powers similar to those used by federal prosecutors against the Mafia.

Mr. Gansler told members of the House Judiciary Committee that Maryland prosecutors cannot prosecute gangs “as a whole,” limiting authorities to mount “piecemeal” prosecutions in crimes involving numerous suspects.

What is needed, he said, is a statewide statute comparable to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

RICO usually is reserved for organized crime.

Some lawmakers questioned how authorities could be certain of gang membership, and whether that alone could be grounds for arrest.

“I think we ought to focus on when they actually commit a crime,” said Delegate Luiz Simmons, Montgomery Democrat.

Frank Kratovil, state’s attorney for Queen Anne’s County, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that gang crime isn’t a problem only in Baltimore and heavily populated counties. He said he initially was not convinced the problem was spreading to rural areas of the state, but that a recent homicide in his county forced him to reconsider.

“It’s in Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland,” Mr. Kratovil said.

‘The right thing’

A ban on trans fat in Maryland restaurants has been proposed.

Though the measure to get rid of the unhealthy fat stands little chance of passing, its sponsor, Delegate James W. Hubbard, Prince George’s Democrat, said a ban is “the right thing to do.”

“All those kids out there who are eating french fries and other fried foods, they’re starting to clog their arteries at a young age,” he told the Baltimore Sun.

Trans fats are prized by restaurants because of their stability. Doctors say they can raise levels of bad cholesterol and reduce levels of healthy cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease.

New York City last month adopted such a ban.

No state has adopted a trans-fat ban, though some have considered one. Mr. Hubbard acknowledged that he is the only lawmaker in Maryland pushing a trans-fat ban.

“I don’t usually stick my finger up to see which way the wind is blowing,” Mr. Hubbard said. “If I think this is the correct thing to do, I’ll do it and I’ll take my lumps.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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