Maryland Governor Offers Plan for 15,000 Slot Machines

A long-running debate on whether to legalize slot-machine gambling in Maryland went full volume Nov. 2 with opponents decrying gambling as a predatory tax on the poor and supporters clamoring for a constitutional amendment to save the horseracing industry.

Separate rallies were held as lawmakers gathered to hear Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to amend Maryland’s constitution in a referendum to legalize up to 15,000 slot machines at five locations in a state where the slots issue has divided lawmakers for five years.

The legalization of slots is a major part of O'Malley’s plan to address a $1.7-billion budget deficit. Though the state wouldn’t see much of the money right away, slots eventually would generate an estimated $700 million a year after several years, according to O’Malley administration estimates. More than half of the money would go toward education.

The governor was upbeat at a Nov. 2 news conference as the first week of a special session he has called to address the budget deficit winded down. O’Malley, a Democrat, said lawmakers who have been opposed to voting for slots have told him they could support sending the matter to the voters in November 2008 to decide.

“I am optimistic, and I think we’re further along and closer together than we’ve ever been on this issue,” O'Malley told reporters in a joint news conference with House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas “Mike” Miller.

On the other side of the debate, Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has been an outspoken slots opponent, said he was saddened to see the state pursuing a “sleazy, predatory, corrupt, regressive tax on poor people.”

Franchot noted Maryland once had legalized slot machines. In 1949, Charles County earned the nickname “Little Vegas” for having slots, only to have the machines banned in 1967.

Miller, Maryland’s longest-serving Senate president and a strong slots supporter, gave a history lesson of another kind at a rally of slots supporters. “Over 200 years ago, George Washington came to this city to race his horses--to bet on the horses--the president of the United States, folks,” Miller said. “It has been a part of our history, part of our culture, for a long time.”

Roughly 250 workers from Maryland racetracks waved signs and cheered the Senate president, chanting: “Keep the fight, Mike.”

George Murphy, an executive assistant to the president for Local 27, which represents about 600 racetrack employees at three Maryland racetracks, said he has watched the industry in Maryland decline in the past 15 years “to the point where they're fighting for their survival.”

Laurel Park was closed for live racing Nov. 2 so employees and horsemen could attend the rally in Annapolis.

O’Malley’s plan calls for allowing 4,250 slot machines in Anne Arundel County, presumably at Laurel; 2,500 in Cecil County near the Delaware border; 3,250 in Worcester County on the Eastern Shore, where the Ocean Downs harness track is located; 3,500 in Baltimore, but probably not at Pimlico Race Course; and 1,500 on state property at a lodge and resort in western Maryland.

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