he South Baltimore delegate, known for his irreverence and love of political deal-making, had made a circuit of the House of Delegates floor, collecting sponsors for a bill when he spotted the senator from Baltimore's liberal Bolton Hill area.
"Hey, Jack," a grinning Del. Paul Weisengoff called out to Sen. Julian Lapides. "Have I got a bill for you . . . It's on racing." Lapides glanced toward Weisengoff with a look of dread, threw up his hands and muttered, "Oh no, oh no, not that," before fleeing the House and the bill.
With that, the always controversial issue of Maryland horse racing, which helped bring down former governor Marvin Mandel and proved too politically uncomfortable for many past Maryland legislatures, returned to the State House this week.
Two years after Gov. Harry Hughes and legislative leaders failed to persuade a skittish legislature to pass an ambitious race-track consolidation bill, Maryland's racing industry, which generates by some estimates nearly $1 billion a year in business around the state, is again warning of economic ruin.
Increased costs and new, stiff competition from surrounding states will drive the tracks out of business unless the state comes forward with help, the track owners said.
"This is not the annual trek to Annapolis of the racing industry asking for a handout," said Frank DeFrancis, owner of Free State Raceway in Laurel and spokesman of the newly unified harness industry. "This is now a critical situation. We're talking about the continued future of one of Maryland's oldest industries."
In response, Weisengoff, one of two racing experts in the legislature, began pushing two major bills this week to revamp the industry. And one of them at least--which would increase the number of racing days and lower state taxes at the three harness tracks--has a good chance of passing this year, according to legislative sources.
House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg have agreed to be chief sponsors of the harness bill. And the governor, according to his aides, might even give his nod.
Weisengoff's second bill would consolidate thoroughbred racing and close the half-mile track at Timonium Fair Grounds and split up its 42 racing days among the remaining tracks. That measure is considered more controversial than the harness bill, with dimmer prospects in the legislature.
Weisengoff said that controversy or not, the racing issue must be dealt with. "There's a real concern," said Weisengoff. "They the track owners are not just crying poor-mouth. They're saying if you want a racing industry in Maryland here's how you do it."