Call for slots ref­er­en­dum

O’Mal­ley pro­poses to let vot­ers de­cide

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - by Laura Smither­man and James Drew

Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley pro­posed yes­ter­day a ref­er­en­dum on slots that would al­low up to 15,000 ma­chines in five Mary­land lo­ca­tions — in­clud­ing Bal­ti­more — and hand the de­ci­sion to vot­ers af­ter years of leg­isla­tive dead­lock.

“It’s time to let the peo­ple de­cide,” O’Mal­ley said, adding that he per­son­ally would vote for slots in a ref­er­en­dum.

Un­der the plan, slot ma­chines would be lim­ited to five places — one each in Anne Arun­del, Ce­cil, Worces­ter and Al­le­gany coun­ties and Bal­ti­more City. The only race­tracks cov­ered by the plan would be Lau­rel Park in Anne Arun­del and Ocean Downs in Worces­ter, an O’Mal­ley aide said.

The po­ten­tial Bal­ti­more site would be in the Mid­dle Branch area, within a half-mile of In­ter­state 95 and Route 295. It does not in­clude Pim­lico Race Course.

The pro­posed ref­er­en­dum ap­peared to break the stand­off over the is­sue be­tween House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots foe, and Se­nate Pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller, a strong sup­porter. Both Democrats said they thought they would be able to get the nec­es­sary votes in the spe­cial ses­sion that be­gins Mon­day.

“My be­lief al­ways has been a ref­er­en­dum makes the Gen­eral As­sem­bly and the gov­er­nor put the best prod­uct on the bal­lot. It will help bring a res­o­lu­tion to this,” Busch said.

The slots pro­posal, which is among six ad­min­is­tra­tion bills the leg­is­la­ture will con­sider, calls for a Novem­ber 2008 ref­er­en­dum. Law­mak­ers will con­sider a bill au­tho­riz­ing the ref­er­en­dum and leg­is­la­tion on how the slots pro-

gram­would bead­min­is­tered.

O’Mal­ley called the ses­sion to ad­dress the state’s pro­jected $1.7 bil­lion bud­get deficit. He had hoped the leg­is­la­ture would ap­prove slot ma­chines to raise rev­enue, but the plan bogged down amid op­po­si­tion in both cham­bers. The latest plan, if ap­proved as a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment in the ref­er­en­dum, could raise as much as $700 mil­lion a year, much of it tar­geted for ed­u­ca­tion, O’Mal­ley said.

With the con­tro­ver­sial is­sue po­ten­tially mov­ing to the bal­lot box, the de­bate is likely to get even more heated. A grass-roots cam­paign to keep slots out of the state is un­der way, and slots pro­po­nents warn that out-of-state gam­bling in­ter­ests are likely to fund anti-slots ini­tia­tives be­cause they fear com­pe­ti­tion. West Vir­ginia, Penn­syl­va­nia, Delaware and New York have le­gal­ized slots and race­track casi­nos.

“Peo­ple who live near th­ese lo­ca­tions will be very un­happy,” said Aaron Meis­ner, the leader of Stop Slots Mary­land. “You will see a very rapid shift in pub­lic sen­ti­ment. I can as­sure that the peo­ple of Ce­cil County and the East­ern Shore and Bal­ti­more City will not be happy to see this, and they will come out in force.”

Slots pro­po­nents say that Mary­land is los­ing rev­enue to neigh­bor­ing states that of­fer that kind of gam­bling. They also say that bring­ing slots to Mary­land’s race­tracks would bol­ster a strug­gling horse rac­ing in­dus­try.

Richard Hoff­berger, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Thor­ough­bred Horse­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, said he is en­cour­aged that O’Mal­ley’s plan calls for up to $100 mil­lion a year to en­hance horse rac­ing purses and pro­vide funds for the horse breed­ing in­dus­try.

Un­der O’Mal­ley’s plan, the State Lot­tery Com­mis­sion would own the slot ma­chines, which would be op­er­ated un­der li­censes granted to com­pa­nies that ap­ply to a seven-mem­ber com­mis­sion, in­clud­ing six to be ap­pointed by the gov­er­nor and one by the state trea­surer. Only one li­cense could be awarded for each lo­ca­tion.

Joseph C. Bryce, O’Mal­ley’s leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor, said the com­mis­sion would con­sider a num­ber of fac­tors in choos­ing the bid­ders, in­clud­ing own­er­ship, im­pact on area sur­round­ing where they pro­pose to in­stall slots, and the per­cent­age of mi­nor­ity own­er­ship.

Bryce said Rose­croft Race­way didn’t make the list of sites be­cause of “sig­nif­i­cant” op­po­si­tion in Prince Ge­orge’s County.

Lou Raf­fetto Jr., pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Mary­land Jockey Club, which is owned by Toronto-based Magna En­ter­tain­ment Corp. and op­er­ates Pim­lico Race Course and Lau­rel Park, said the pro­posal for a slots fa­cil­ity in down­town Bal­ti­more — but not at Pim­lico — is “very dis­con­cert­ing.”

Asked whether it might mean clos­ing Pim­lico or mov­ing the Preak­ness, Raf­fetto said, “We can’t give any as­sur­ances as it re­lates to Pim­lico or any of the tracks. All I can say as it re­lates to the Preak­ness is we can as­sure it will be run in 2008. Be­yond that, I can’t speak to any­thing.”

Bal­ti­more Mayor Sheila Dixon told the gov­er­nor in a let­ter: “While I re­main op­posed to le­gal­iz­ing slot ma­chines at Pim­lico Race Track or the In­ner Har­bor, I be­lieve that the peo­ple of Bal­ti­more are best served at this crit­i­cal junc­ture with a bill that pre­serves the op­tion for a slot ma­chine fa­cil­ity in Bal­ti­more City un­der cer­tain con­di­tions.”

The slots is­sue has long pit­ted Miller against Busch, and the House speaker had warned that it would be dif­fi­cult to get the votes in the House to pass leg­is­la­tion le­gal­iz­ing slots with­out a voter ref­er­en­dum.

A ref­er­en­dum bill could still prove dif­fi­cult to pass. Pas­sage in the leg­is­la­ture re­quires a three­fifths ma­jor­ity in each cham­ber, and some GOP lead­ers who backed slots un­der a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor have said they do not plan to back O’Mal­ley’s pro­posal, es­pe­cially in a spe­cial ses­sion fo­cused on tax in­creases.

Miller, who wanted the Gen­eral As­sem­bly to de­cide the is­sue, said he is dis­ap­pointed that the is­sue would be de­layed for a year un­til the ref­er­en­dum. How­ever, he did win con­ces­sions in craft­ing it. For in­stance, O’Mal­ley had said he would model his slots pro­posal on pre­vi­ous House leg­is­la­tion that called for 9,500 slots. But the gov­er­nor’s new­est plan calls for the higher num­ber of slots, closer to a pre­vi­ous Se­nate bill.

“We’re try­ing to max­i­mize the amount of rev­enue for the state,” Miller said. “It’s not about be­ing for slots or against slots. It’s about keep­ing Mary­land dol­lars in Mary­land.”

Other leg­is­la­tors are ex­pected to in­tro­duce their own slots bills. Del. Shane Pen­der­grass, a Howard County Demo­crat, plans to pro­pose that slot ma­chines be lo­cated only in ju­ris­dic­tions where vot­ers give ma­jor­ity sup­port in a ref­er­en­dum.

Del. An­thony J. O’Don­nell, a Repub­li­can from Calvert and St. Mary’s coun­ties, said he would in­tro­duce a bill that would al­low for slots li­censes to be auc­tioned, gen­er­at­ing as much as $1 bil­lion.

Gam­bling ex­perts say that statewide casino or slots ini­tia­tives can be dif­fi­cult to pass, though vot­ers are of­ten will­ing to back an ini­tia­tive if they be­lieve that it won’t cost them money and it’s for a good cause, such as im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion or health care.

“On av­er­age, more bal­lot mea­sures are de­feated than win,” said Kristina Wil­fore, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Bal­lot Ini­tia­tive Strat­egy Cen­ter.

But O’Mal­ley ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are op­ti­mistic. They point to polls in Mary­land that show wide­spread pub­lic sup­port for slots and say they are con­fi­dent a bal­lot mea­sure would pass here.

laura.smither­man@balt­sun.com james.drew@balt­sun.com

Sun re­porters Greg Gar­land and Kelly Brew­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

KARL MER­TON FER­RON [SUN PHO­TOG­RA­PHER]

Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley talks about the com­ing spe­cial ses­sion. [Re­lated ar­ti­cle, 1B]

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