By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. opened a General Assembly hearing on legalizing slot machine gambling Tuesday by arguing that slots are "necessary" to manage the state's $1.3 billion budget deficit.
But it wasn't long before the afternoon hearing morphed into several hours of renewed and passionate pleading from representatives of Maryland racing that slots are the only way to save their dying industry.
"As legislators we have two constitutional responsibilities: One, to fund public education and, two to balance the budget," Miller, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
The bill would allow 15,500 slot machines at four racetracks and three other unspecified locations and would generate as much as $800 million a year for the state, according to the bill's fiscal analysis. Most of that money would go toward funding education and the remainder - approximately $150 million - would fund public school construction and assist undergraduates with tuition, said the bill's supporters.
The bill would also provide funding for larger race track purses, compulsive gambling treatment, education, school construction and efforts to mitigate the impact on communities where slots parlors are located.
Miller touted his bill as a "win-win for the state of Maryland," and said Tuesday that it would not only generate half of the money needed to pull the state budget out of its projected operating deficit, but it would also breathe life back into the racing industry and create new jobs.
The 100-page legislation and financial analysis establishes an Education Trust Fund, a Purse Dedication Account, limits how slot machines will be installed and details how the state revenues are to be allocated.
But the bottom line for many at the hearing seemed to be whether the General Assembly would approve legislation that brought slot machines to the state's racetracks, a move track owners said would help them compete with higher purses in surrounding states that already have slots at their tracks.
"It's not a level playing field," said Alan Foreman, a spokesman for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Foreman and others said that purses and racing days have been reduced to save money, but that the industry was on its last legs.
"The one thing we can't do is meet the demand for new product," said Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. "One that the public seems to want - and one we can't get without your support."
The idea of using slot machine revenues at racetracks to help both the struggling racing industry and the state's budget is one that the Senate committee has heard before - and supported - in the past years. In 2005, the Senate approved a similar proposal which later died in the House, and many Senators indicated that any forward movement on such a bill would have to be decided by their counterparts in the House.
"Our colleagues on the other side, at some point they're going to have to understand how to resolve this issue," Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, told a panel of racetrack owners.
"You're kind of preaching to the choir," added Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who predicted that the President's bill would pass the Senate but not the House. "We'll do our job here and help you out. But somebody needs to do their job over there."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, has been a long-time slots opponent and some who testified indicated that his opposition has been their biggest hurdle. "It's tough for me to be critical because I know he does support the racing industry," Raffetto said outside the hearing room. "But I can't understand why they don't want to do anything now."