Maryland's black lawmakers are threatening to block a proposal to legalize slot machines unless minorities are guaranteed a large portion of the expected bonanza from gambling.
For some legislators, that means expanding state gambling beyond racetracks and into hotels in such places as the planned National Harbor development in Prince George's County and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.
"I know there's going to be a push for that," said state Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's), whose district includes both National Harbor and the Rosecroft Raceway horse track in Oxon Hill. "If there are going to be casinos, the natural place for them is National Harbor."
Members of the legislative black caucus met in private yesterday, their second meeting this week to discuss their strategy on slots. Although the caucus has yet to reach a consensus on a bill, black lawmakers said they agreed to lobby aggressively to ensure that minority investors, contractors and suppliers are included in any deal.
"I haven't heard yet how my community is going to benefit, how women are going to benefit, from this economic largesse," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we just want it to be fair."
Said Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore): "Right now, I don't see where African Americans are getting any benefit at all. I want to see some kind of participation for minorities."
The current plan to limit slots to racetracks, some lawmakers argued, would primarily benefit the state's horse-racing industry, which is dominated by wealthy white families and out-of-state corporations.
The horse industry presented Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) with a written proposal Wednesday that would allow it to operate 18,000 slot machines at five racetracks. Under the plan, racetrack owners and horse breeders would get to keep roughly half the proceeds, while the state would collect the rest in the form of a betting tax.
Such a plan could bring in more than $2 billion in revenue a year, gaming experts said.
The horse industry wants to confine slots to five of the state's six licensed racetracks. Under the proposal, track owners would wield considerable influence over all aspects of gaming, including the awarding of lucrative contracts to slot-machine manufacturers. The track owners are also seeking assurances that the state will reimburse them in case slots are legalized at other sites in the future.
Rawlings called the plan "very excessive," echoing concerns from other officials, including Ehrlich, that racing interests were asking for too much. "They are showing evidence of greed," Rawlings said.
Although no gambling bills have been introduced in this year's state legislative session -- which began Wednesday -- some lawmakers predicted that casinos on riverboats at the Inner Harbor and hotels at National Harbor would get a close look.
Lawlah and other black lawmakers said minorities deserve to benefit financially if slots are approved because two of the biggest racetracks -- Rosecroft in Oxon Hill and Pimlico in Baltimore -- are in predominantly black communities. She also noted that the gambling operations would likely market themselves heavily to black customers.
"We're not just looking for outside interests to rake in the money," she said. "You've got to have equity for minorities. Who do you think is going to spend the most money on slots?"
Ehrlich has said he's adamantly opposed to casinos or expanding slots beyond racetracks. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) agreed. "It's not going to happen," he said.
Miller criticized the black caucus's threats to block slots legislation unless minority investors reap some rewards. "This is not a black-and-white issue," Miller said. "It's a green issue. It's about money for the state for education."
In that regard, black lawmakers have found an unlikely ally in House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Busch, an ardent opponent of slots, has questioned whether blacks would be getting a raw deal under Ehrlich's proposal for expanded gambling.
Specifically, Busch has criticized Ehrlich for his promise to exclude slots from two of the state's six licensed racetracks: the State Fairgrounds in Timonium and the Ocean Downs harness track near Ocean City. Ehrlich cited local opposition to slots at Ocean Downs and said they would corrupt a "family atmosphere" at the fairgrounds.
In a speech to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Busch accused Ehrlich of protecting the predominantly white areas that surround Timonium and Ocean Downs from the impact of slots, while allowing gambling in minority and blue-collar neighborhoods near the other four tracks.
"I think we should ask ourselves why we would put slots only in tracks in blue-collar [or] African American communities," Busch said in an interview yesterday. "They're the ones that will have to bear the brunt of the social ills slots will bring, while the profits will be going out to other communities."
After the Chamber of Commerce meeting, Busch told William Rickman Jr., the owner of Ocean Downs, that it would be unfair for the state to exclude slots there while permitting them at other racetracks.
Such news was eagerly received by Rickman, who said in an interview that he would continue to lobby Ehrlich and other lawmakers to allow slots at Ocean Downs. He implied that the track could be forced to close down otherwise and that he might move his racing operations elsewhere in the state.
"I don't think anyone wants Ocean Downs to go out of business," he said. "But we can't be discriminated against or excluded from the process. . . . Racetracks are like baseball teams and football teams -- they don't always have to stay in one place."
Rickman said he wanted lawmakers to at least keep the door open to slots at Ocean Downs in the future, perhaps by tying approval to passage of a local referendum.
"If I was given an opportunity to participate at a later date with local approval and legislative approval," he said, "I'd be okay with that."
Rawlings said he would introduce a bill next week that would authorize four licenses to operate slot machines at racetracks. The licenses, however, would be granted based on competitive bids. Each of the state's six tracks, including Ocean Downs, would be eligible to seek the licenses, which he estimated would cost $100 million each in one-time fees.
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.