Slots Passed, but Not Ready to Play


ANNAPOLIS (Nov. 5, 2008)—With the slots referendum passing on Tuesday, countless Marylanders may be ready to grab a bucket of quarters, sit on a stool, and strike it rich. But these and other gamblers may have to wait a few years, as several steps must be taken before slot machines get plugged into the walls.

State leaders, for instance, must now appoint a seven-member commission to dole out slot machine operating licenses, and the deadline to bid for the licenses is Feb. 1, 2009. State officials can only speculate as to when the winners will be announced, as this depends on the number of applicants, and how long the commission deliberates.

The winning companies must also renovate, build or prepare their gambling parlors for thousands of slot machines and the expected surge of players. The facilities may not be up and running until 2011, state officials have said.

The slots ballot item, or Question 2, was overwhelmingly approved Tuesday, reversing a decades-long ban on slot machine gambling. The referendum - 1.16 million had voted yes, 820,000 had voted no as of Wednesday afternoon- authorized up to 15,000 slot machines at five sites, and could pump more than $600 million a year into the state's coffers.

At least one company has already lined up to bid for a license. The Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park, Pimlico race track and a training center in Bowie, announced Wednesday that it will apply for a license for Laurel Park, which is eligible to have up to 4,750 slot machines.

Company officials can only speculate as to when the bids will be awarded, and, if the club is chosen, when the slot machines will be ready to play.

Mike Gathagan, a club spokesman, described Tuesday's vote as "step one of four." The last phase alone, ordering and installing the slot machines, may take "at least nine months."

"It's not like they're just sitting on a counter," he said.

The slots referendum, introduced last fall in the General Assembly's special session, was the latest attempt to legalize slots in Maryland, where they've been banned since 1968. The horse racing industry pushed to reverse the ban in the mid-1990s, but was thwarted by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

His successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., tried to legalize slots four times during his administration, but opposed this year's referendum. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who bumped Ehrlich from office in 2006, was a vocal proponent of the referendum that passed Tuesday.

Interest groups worked on both sides of the ballot item, airing television and radio advertisements and holding rallies, among other efforts.

Proponents said the referendum would inject much needed cash into the state's coffers. Among other problems, the nation's struggling economy has slashed Maryland's income and sales tax receipts, leaving less money for salaries and services.

Opponents, however, said slot machines would bring a wave of social problems, including gambling addiction, crime and home foreclosures. Comptroller Peter Franchot, the most vocal opponent, said Wednesday that his side had to fight the "deep pockets" of the national gambling industry, among others, to convince Marylanders to vote no.

"They ran deceptive T.V. ads, manipulated the ballot language, misstated the facts, and made promises they would never, ever be able to keep," he said, in a statement.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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