ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is willing to allow slot machine parlors in venues other than racetracks, despite his goal of expanding gambling to help Maryland’s declining horse racing industry, he told reporters Wednesday.
“My suspicion is, it will be a combination,” Ehrlich said. “It will be one or more tracks and one or more off-track locations.”
Last spring, Ehrlich called for new slots exclusively at tracks to aid the racing industry and to close a state budget gap, with particular emphasis on funding education reform.
But House Speaker Michael Busch killed that bill and has since proposed authorizing off-track slots, saying they would be more profitable for the state.
Although Ehrlich stands by the bills he proposed last year, the governor said, “We have said if we could get any progress from the speaker concerning bill negotiations, we’ll try to deal with his major concerns.”
A new plan might respond to some of those concerns by granting only one slots license to the joint owners of Laurel Park and Pimlico racetracks, Ehrlich said. The governor said his staff has been in discussions with Busch’s.
Busch wouldn’t say if Ehrlich’s comments indicated a new willingness to compromise.
“I don’t think it would be fair for me to read anything into it,” Busch said. “I really can’t comment, because I haven’t had any discussions with the governor in a month.”
The House Ways and Means Committee is still studying a variety of proposals for expanding gambling, Busch noted.
Despite Busch’s emphasis on maximum returns for the state, Ehrlich stressed that using slots revenue to fund educational reforms is not his only priority.
“Before this devolved into a budget issue, as a result of overspending and a loss of fiscal discipline, this was purely a horse racing issue for years,” Ehrlich said.
“We need to get younger people back at the track,” Ehrlich said.
Maryland tracks need slots to stay competitive with venues in Delaware and other states, track owners have argued. Slots money could fund larger prizes for race winners, thus attracting better horses with bigger crowds and saving Maryland’s declining horse racing industry.
Putting slots elsewhere in Maryland will only hurt the industry, track supporters say.
“I don’t believe there’s a correlation between racing and expansion of gaming,” Busch countered, pointing to a Maryland Tax Education Foundation study released Wednesday that said slots don’t save racetracks.
“I believe the horse racing industry has its own issues,” Busch said. The state, he said, must work with the industry, whether or not slots go to tracks.