O'Malley Calls for Slots at Racetracks

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley called upon the Maryland General Assembly yesterday to legalize slot machine gambling at horse tracks, saying he was "sick of this issue" but feared that the state's racing industry could collapse if lawmakers did not find common ground early in his term.

The issue of slots dominated the first three legislative sessions of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tenure, producing stalemates that contributed to his rocky relations with the Democrat-controlled legislature.

O'Malley (D) said he is eager for compromise between backers of a more expansive slots plan and those who argue that legalizing machines would be only a first step toward dramatic expansion of gambling in Maryland.

"Hopefully, we can find some room for compromise and address people's fears about this being the camel's nose under the tent, and move forward to other more pressing, important issues," O'Malley said during an interview on WTOP (103.5 FM, 820 AM), one in a series of radio and television appearances yesterday in which he was peppered with questions on the topic.

O'Malley, who is Baltimore's mayor, said slot machines at racetracks would help prop up an industry that provides 18,000 jobs in Maryland and would ensure the survival of the Preakness Stakes, a nationally renowned event at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore that O'Malley called "the equivalent of having the Super Bowl in Maryland every year."

If legislation is not passed within two years, O'Malley said, "I think you'll see racing just give up and go to other states and the Preakness move on."

Lawmakers, who return to Annapolis in January, offered divergent views on whether a slots bill is more likely to pass a Democrat-controlled legislature under a Democratic governor than under Ehrlich, who made the issue a priority.

"If you're against it, you're against it," said House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). "I would hope we would not jump on this."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a leading slots proponent, said he was optimistic that lawmakers would pass a tracks-only bill during a "honeymoon" period afforded most new governors.

"I think it will be dealt with in the first year, and I think it will pass in the first year," he said.

Miller acknowledged that there is a key obstacle in the person of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who considers the idea of placing slot machines at tracks an "unjust enrichment" of their owners. Busch was unavailable yesterday for comment, aides said.

O'Malley stressed yesterday that slots would not be a priority of his administration, saying, "It's nothing that I've ever made a central plank of my campaign."

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