Leading lawmakers in the campaign to legalize slot machines in Maryland warned yesterday that efforts to expand gambling -- once considered a shoo-in in the General Assembly -- could fail because of infighting among interest groups over how the anticipated windfall would be shared.
As the legislature prepared to convene today in Annapolis for its annual 90-day session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said sentiment against slots had grown stronger in recent days, fueled by reports of special-interest groups lobbying for a share of the multimillion-dollar jackpot that gambling could bring to the state.
"Quite frankly, I think slots are in jeopardy right now because the greed is starting to show," said Miller, the prime backer of slots in the General Assembly. "People are starting to see dollar signs. . . . The greed is turning [lawmakers] off so rapidly."
Miller estimated the odds of a slots bill passing the Senate at "50-50." The measure's chances in the House of Delegates are considered even slimmer.
Slots are expected to play a pivotal role in this year's General Assembly, with all sides agreeing that the debate will determine how lawmakers respond to a record $1.7 billion budget shortfall.
Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is counting on revenue from slots to plug a $400 million hole in next year's budget and to bring in more than $800 million annually after that. If slots fail, lawmakers acknowledged, they will be forced to raise taxes, slash services or both.
Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Senate committee that will handle slots legislation, also said support for the idea had waned in recent days. "There's been a shift," said Currie, a slots backer. "I think it is going to become more difficult to pass slots."
Many lawmakers said they were concerned about reports that a variety of special-interest groups were gearing up to grab a slice of the proceeds from expanded gambling.
Racetrack owners and leaders of the horse industry have been meeting in private for several weeks to discuss proposals for dividing revenue from slots. The racing industry would reap millions from Ehrlich's plan, which would confine slots to four licensed racetracks in Maryland, but the meetings have been marred by bickering.
The owners of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, have signed a contract that stipulates how individual investors would split the profits should the state approve slots.
Even a dead man could benefit from the legalization of slots. The estate of business tycoon Jack Kent Cooke, onetime owner of the Washington Redskins, would be owed $6 million if 1,250 slot machines were permitted at Laurel or Pimlico by 2006, according to documents released yesterday by the Maryland Racing Commission in response to a public-records request.
Cooke's estate would receive the money from LUK-Flats LLC, a minority investor in the Jockey Club, under a contract struck in 1998 as part of a separate loan agreement between the two parties. The money would not involve any of the state's share of revenue from slots.
"It's important to note that this is a private transaction between two parties and would have nothing whatsoever to do with money going to state government," said Joseph A. De Francis, another minority investor in the Jockey Club.
African American lawmakers have been huddling privately as they prepare a push to reserve a chunk of any slots profits for the benefit of their constituents. The rationale: Two of the state's biggest racetracks -- Pimlico in Baltimore and Rosecroft Raceway in Oxon Hill -- are in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Members of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus held a closed-door session Monday in Baltimore and vowed to block slots legislation unless money is set aside for minority-owned businesses and black communities.
News of the meeting prompted a round of sharp criticism from Miller, who accused the black caucus of pandering and seemed particularly annoyed that two black congressmen -- Albert R. Wynn and Elijah E. Cummings, both Democrats -- were playing a key role in the talks.
"If legislators resort to representing private and ethnic interests and all that, then [the effort for slots] is going to go down," Miller said. "State legislators should represent the greater good. Congress people should stay in Congress and let state lawmakers take care of state issues."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), who helped organize the meeting, made no apologies. He said black neighborhoods were just as entitled to the economic benefits of slots as horse racing interests.
"If you're talking about greed, you won't see it coming from us, from the African American legislators," Rawlings said. "You'll more likely see it coming from some of Senator Miller's friends."
Wynn defended his interest in the issue, noting that his district includes Rosecroft. He also suggested that state lawmakers consider allowing slots at places other than racetracks.
"Just throwing a few slots in existing facilities that are not modern doesn't make any business sense," said Wynn, a strong ally of Miller's in the past. "If the point is just to enrich the [racetracks], that doesn't necessarily interest the constituents I represent. You just can't have a bunch of horse breeders and track owners running the state, and that's what this comes down to."
Ehrlich has issued warnings of his own about the gambling issue recently. On Friday, he threatened to withhold his support for slots at racetracks unless the horse racing industry put an end to its internal feuding.
At the same time, Ehrlich said it was "premature" to sound the death knell on slots, noting that he hadn't even had a chance to introduce his bill on the issue.