By Ray Paulick
-- Barring a last-minute miracle in the Maryland legislature, the horse industries in Maryland and Kentucky came up on the short end of the stick in their efforts to get legislation permitting slot machines at racetracks. Both states, with casino boats or slot machines operating just across their state lines, will have a tough row to hoe until they can compete on a level playing field with their neighbors.
In Maryland, slot machines were a defining issue in Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.'s successful run for office last year. Thomas V. (Mike) Miller, the president of the Maryland Senate, also supported slots at state racetracks, pushing through a Senate bill that was narrowly approved, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch opposed the bill and had enough influence to stop it.
Kentucky's lame-duck and scandal-plagued governor, Paul Patton, also supported slot machines, but he has virtually no control of the legislature. House majority leader Greg Stumbo is a horse industry ally who pushed for a slots bill, but powerful Senate president David Williams stated his chamber would not pass the bill, and it quickly died.
In both states, the racetracks appeared to be leading the charge, and some of their actions angered politicians. Joe De Francis, who sold majority interest in Pimlico and Laurel Park to Magna Entertainment, was attacked by some legislators who thought the slots bill would simply line his pockets as a payback for his campaign contributions in recent years.
To help gain support for their bill, Kentucky racetracks offered to guarantee the state $200 million a year for four years if they could get slots. The offer was labeled a "bribe" by a leading opponent of the legislation. The previous session of the Kentucky legislature was tainted by last-minute campaign contributions from Churchill Downs officials.
Now, some prominent legislators in Maryland and Kentucky are talking about possibly expanding gambling at locations other than racetracks. If that happens, it would be a devastating blow to the industry.
Owners and breeders lobbied for the bill in Maryland and Kentucky through state organizations, but their role clearly was secondary to that of the racetracks. That's too bad, because their story is a much better one to tell legislators. Breeding farms are a significant contributor to Maryland's agribusiness; in Kentucky, Thoroughbreds rank as the No. 1 agricultural product. In addition to paying taxes and creating employment opportunities, the farms also contribute to the states by protecting greenspace.
Why, then, was De Francis the point man in Maryland and Turfway Park president Bob Elliston the mouthpiece in Kentucky's failed effort? Wouldn't someone representing owners or breeders be more effective?
The horse industry must prepare a better strategy in Maryland and Kentucky for 2004. Maryland will face the same hurdles it did during the recent legislative session: namely a majority of Democrats who follow House speaker Busch in opposition to slots. For that reason, Gov. Ehrlich and Senate president Miller said they will not push for similar legislation next year. The horse industry will try to revive the bill, but it looks like an uphill fight. For that reason, it will be essential for owners and breeders to flex their collective muscles and not allow the process to be driven by the tracks.
Kentucky has a similar situation. For as long as Williams is president of a Republican-controlled Senate, it is extremely doubtful a slots bill will pass in any form other than a constitutional amendment, which is also a longshot. A constitutional amendment would put the question on a ballot, allowing the public to decide. By so doing, legislators who oppose gambling can say they didn't vote for slots or casino wagering, but that they left it up to Kentuckians.
Maryland and Kentucky need slot machines so their racing programs can keep up with neighboring states. Owners and breeders must get involved to make that a reality.