Behind the scenes of Maryland's intractable debate over gambling, some of the state's most powerful political insiders have been locked in a sharp-elbowed game of musical chairs, jockeying to be included in any plan to legalize slot machines.
Though Maryland's political leaders remain miles apart in their negotiations over the proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to allow slots in the state, this elite set of wealthy business leaders has stepped up pressure on all parties to find an agreement.
In recent weeks, top state officials said they have received phone calls or personal visits from several of those who have invested in sites where slots parlors could go, including Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos; Potomac builder William Rickman Jr.; National Harbor developer Milton V. Peterson; Maryland Jockey Club President Joseph A. De Francis; and Frank Stronach, the Canadian auto parts mogul whose company owns Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks.
Still others have met privately with the governor and legislative leaders to express their interest in sites that could eventually become gambling venues. Among them: Baltimore bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr., who built his fortune selling hamburger buns to McDonald's, and Don H. Barden, the Detroit entrepreneur who was the nation's first African American casino owner.
"It's become a game of musical chairs," said Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director. "We know some of these guys will wind up with a license if a slots bill passes; we just don't know which ones."
Their personal appeals are not easily ignored, considering that for years now, many have been patrons of Maryland's political universe, donating prolifically to candidates across the spectrum. De Francis alone gave $200,000 to a national Democratic committee overseen by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert) and $137,000 to state campaign committees through a catalogue of business entities.
Even more telling has been the entry into the slots debate of Angelos, one of the single largest donors to Democratic candidates statewide and nationally, and Paterakis, who is known in Annapolis as the "bread man," not just because he runs a bakery.
These high rollers have also plowed thousands of dollars into lobbying, and the result, say several lawmakers and advocates following the slots debate, is that each has found his property eligible for a slots license in one proposal or another.
"It's an interchangeable cast of characters, depending on the proposal you're talking about," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery). "Without a doubt, though, this has become a feast for the well heeled and the well connected."
The increased pressure has driven House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Miller to continue their search for common ground on slots legislation. The two legislative leaders resumed those talks yesterday at a private meeting in Boston during the Democratic National Convention. Busch said last night that he and Miller continue to have vastly different ideas about where slots should go if they become legal. But, he said, "there's room to be more flexible" if Ehrlich and Miller agree to put the issue before voters in November.
Under Miller's most recent proposal, slots would be placed at privately owned sites across the state -- three of them at horse-racing tracks and three at other locations, selected by a commission of nine government appointees, with members selected jointly by Miller, Busch and Ehrlich. That plan, which echoes legislation approved in the Senate, would favor track owners De Francis and Stronach, as well as Angelos, whose family recently signaled its intent to purchase Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.
Miller said the proposal makes sense because it "locates slots where they have the most public acceptance and where gambling is already taking place."
When asked whether appeals from influential personalities have played a role in determining where slots should go, Miller was emphatic that they had not.
"Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, no," he said.
Busch said that House leaders have also envisioned six locations but that they would primarily be on state-owned land on the perimeter of the state, where they can best intercept slots customers who may be headed to gamble in Delaware, West Virginia or Pennsylvania. That plan might prove beneficial to Rickman, who owns an off-track betting facility near state-owned property on the Eastern Shore, and Barden, who has expressed an interest in the state-owned lodge at Rocky Gap, in Western Maryland.
But a central element of Busch's plan for state ownership is that it eliminates the chance for private ownership, relying instead on private groups to lease the sites.
"It takes the personalities right out of it," Busch said in an interview last week. "Once you start designing this legislation around personalities, it becomes like an entitlement. People get in just for the profit. And it takes the focus away from getting the best possible deal for Maryland."
The debate over private vs. public ownership of the slots sites in Maryland has largely been considered an academic one because few believe state-owned locations will pass muster with Miller and Ehrlich, said Simmons, a slots foe who proposed legislation banning gambling executives from donating to political campaigns. Most people, he said, are "politically conscious enough to know that [state ownership] doesn't have any legs."
In part, that owes to opposition from business leaders with a stake in slots. Lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, who is helping the Angelos family fight for slots at Rosecroft, said bluntly, "The Angeloses aren't looking to become state employees."
Still, Busch has remained insistent during negotiations that any plan that passes the House of Delegates will have to involve state ownership.
"There's areas where we can be somewhat flexible," Busch said, including among them the number of machines and the site locations. "But from our standpoint [in the House], I would think state ownership is not one of those areas."
Part of his rationale, he said, stems from his hope that any proposal passed by the House would also go on the ballot. It would be much harder to persuade voters to support a plan that would make a few wealthy insiders even more wealthy, he said.
But Miller and Ehrlich have remained cool to the idea of putting slots on the ballot and have argued that private ownership is by far the most sensible approach.
"The governor has said he's willing to discuss that issue," said budget Secretary Chip DiPaula Jr., referring to state ownership of slots sites, "but he thinks this is best left in the private sector."
Rickman, who flew to Salt Lake City last week to talk with Maryland lawmakers attending a national legislative conference, said in an interview that the experience he's had with slots in Delaware offers proof that private ownership works to the taxpayers' advantage.
He said the slot machines at his track at Delaware Park have produced more tax revenue per machine than at any site in the nation.
"Take a look at the numbers," Rickman said. "The three tracks in Delaware pay more taxes [on slots proceeds] than the entire strip in Las Vegas."
Advocates for horse racing argue that slots at tracks will do the most for an ailing horse-racing industry, which De Francis noted "has been part of Maryland's cultural history for 21/2 centuries."
But Busch disagreed, saying his plan would still inject significant amounts -- up to $40 million per track -- into racing.
Others say state ownership offers even more advantages to the taxpayer. Jeffrey C. Hooke, chairman of the Maryland Tax Education Foundation, said the state maximizes its take by leasing out slots sites to the highest bidder.
"If all the deals are worked out in advance, the state misses out on hundreds of millions it could have had with an open bidding process," Hooke said. "My concern is to see that the taxpayers wind up with the benefits of slots, instead of a small group of politically influential track owners and developers."