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A gift tracks don't need

March 10, 2003

The latest version of the slot-machine bill proposed by Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich substantially cuts the fees the state would receive from race track owners. It's a gift they shouldn't get from a state government that needs the revenue much more than they do.

In a press conference held late Wednesday, the administration proposed to cut licensing fees for track owners from $350 million to $120 million, leaving a $240 million gap in next year's budget. In addition, it would boost the number of slot machines statewide to 11,500.

The result of all this is that education would get $643 million annually, down from the $800 million promised in the original bill. And the amount of revenues going to tracks has been raised from 24.89 percent to 28.6 percent, plus other monies to pay the tracks' expenses.

The only plus in this latest revision is that the amount set aside for treatment of compulsive gamblers would go from $500,000 to $5 million.

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Do the tracks need the additional dollars? They say they do to pay for the cost of renovating their facilities. But let us suggest that those who get an exclusive license from the state to run slot-machine gambling - and a guaranteed percentage - ought to be able to borrow money to do those renovations.

Would the cost of borrowing money cut into their proceeds? No doubt, but we would bet that given a choice between accepting a higher licensing fee and not getting slots at all, the tracks will swallow the larger fee, knowing they'll prosper in any case.

The Ehrlich administration's effort on this bill has been sloppy, to say the least. Ehrlich says that everyone knew he favored slot machines before he was elected, but apparently he didn't have more than a vague idea of how it would be done.

How did other states do this? Given that West Virginia and Delaware are so close, it shouldn't be that difficult to find out. We'd have more confidence in this proposal if it incorporated some features that have already worked elsewhere.

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