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Busch says Md. should own slots parlors

January 28, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said Tuesday if slots come to Maryland they should be played in state-built emporiums at locations that will attract tourists and those who now travel out of state to gamble.

By weighing in on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's slot machine proposal unveiled a day earlier, Busch set the framework for negotiations this legislative session. Busch has opposed expanded gambling and was responsible for killing Ehrlich's slots legislation last year.

"This is where the debate and the discussion now begins," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, a slots supporter.

McKee sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, which will review any slots legislation.

Busch's position was part of a draft report on expanded gaming the committee released Tuesday after six months of studying the issue and taking public comment.

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The state should build and own the slots facilities and contract the management through a competitive bid process, Busch said. He said that to get the most money, slots should be located away from racetracks, which are in some of the poorest neighborhoods.

"If you're going to try to keep the money in Maryland, you have to try and intercept the path of people going out of the state," said Busch, D-Anne Arundel.

The Ways and Means report recommended that the slots parlors be located along the Interstate 95 corridor, in the Frederick region and on the Eastern Shore.

The Maryland Stadium Authority could build slots parlors cheaper because it can get lower interest rates than racetrack owners, the report said.

Ehrlich's plan seeks approval of 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks and two other sites to be located along the I-95 corridor between Prince George's and Cecil counties.

The new plan submitted Monday would create a commission appointed by the governor, Senate president and House speaker to award licenses for two "destination locations" with a total of 4,000 machines.

Otherwise, the plan is virtually identical to the bill that was passed by the Maryland Senate last year and killed in the House Ways and Means Committee. It would authorize up to 3,500 machines each at Laurel, Pimlico and Rosecroft raceways and up to 1,000 machines at a track proposed for Allegany County. Those facilities would be owned by track operators.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he approves of Ehrlich's plan.

"Considering the politics of getting slots passed, I think the proposal goes a long way toward meeting the objections," he said.

Ehrlich said the state needs the money for public schools. He estimate slots will raise more than $800 million a year.

Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington, said he dislikes gambling but he will probably vote for the slots bill again this year as a way to pay for education.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he will vote against the bill again this year.

Tip jar gambling, popular in Washington County, was also mentioned in the Ways and Means report. The report said the state should consider regulating tip jars and other local gambling activities.

Washington County lawmakers said local oversight is sufficient, but welcomed the opportunity for further scrutiny.

"In our case, we're in good shape to show them any of the numbers they want," McKee said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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