- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley said yesterday — just days before the 132nd Preakness Stakes — that the state will eventually lose the storied Triple Crown race if slot machines are not legalized in Maryland.

Since he was Baltimore mayor, Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, has supported bringing a limited number of slot machines to Maryland to save the horse-racing industry. He says the state stands to lose 17,000 racing jobs and horse-related open space if it doesn’t legalize slot machines.

The race will be lost if “we continue to insist that racing in Maryland has to compete on the unlevel playing field as it does,” he said, referring to Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which allow slots at their horse tracks to build bigger purses.

“I believe all of us share the goal of keeping Maryland a first-tier racing state, and we need to find common ground that allows us to do that,” Mr. O’Malley said.

Efforts to legalize slot-machine gambling stalled during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican and ardent slots supporter.

Mr. O’Malley, who defeated Mr. Ehrlich in November, didn’t want to take on a serious slots debate this legislative session, when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, introduced a bill.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said yesterday that his position on slot-machine gambling hasn’t changed significantly: He still has “a lot of trepidation” about legalizing slots. However, Mr. Busch said state officials have learned more about the issue in recent years so he is open to further discussions.

Mr. Busch also pointed out that the House passed a slots bill in 2005, although it wasn’t on the scale that Mr. Miller and Mr. Ehrlich wanted.

“We’re going to sit down and work with the governor and the president of the Senate,” Mr. Busch said.

Mr. Busch has voiced concern about using slots revenue to balance the state budget and has argued against putting the machines in mostly poor communities.

Mr. O’Malley hasn’t said what he means by “limited.” Mr. Busch said raising $50 million to $60 million to support horse racing in Maryland wouldn’t require more than 1,500 slot machines statewide.

Mr. Miller this year proposed roughly 15,000 machines at seven locations across the state, including four horse tracks. During the session, Mr. Miller talked about the eventual legalization of slot machines as practically inevitable, given the state’s fiscal woes.

Maryland is facing a $1.5 billion structural deficit next year, and a total of about $5 billion over four years. Mr. Miller has said his slots bill would generate more than $800 million a year.

Mr. Busch also points out that the owners of Pimlico, where the Preakness is held, sold a slot-machine license to a casino operation for $250 million, money he thinks should go to the state.

Asked about dealing with past difficulties in slots negotiations, Mr. O’Malley said the state’s leaders will have to work hard at keeping open minds.

“Now that will mean that every member of the General Assembly and everyone in leadership, including myself, will have to be willing to bend and to compromise a little bit in order to come up with a solution that is in the best interest of the majority of the people of our state,” Mr. O’Malley said.

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