01/21/2004 1:00AM

Advocacy for slots expansion persists


If 2003 was the year of the slot machine for many state legislatures, then 2004 will likely be the sequel.

Just three weeks into the new year, new measures that would authorize slot machines have turned up in several states, including New York and Oklahoma. In addition, earlier proposals in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky, and several other states are expected to be resurrected as legislatures return to session.

Slot-machine legislation made little headway last year, even in jurisdictions where bills were considered to be political slam dunks, such as Maryland and Pennsylvania. But lingering budget deficits, the growing acceptance of the public toward gambling, and lobbying efforts by racetracks and their gambling partners are expected to put pressure on state legislatures to expand gambling.

On Tuesday, Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma announced an agreement to add slot machines to three racetracks. In New York, Gov. George Pataki announced a proposal to expand slots beyond racetracks to raise money for education. Both measures would need the approval of legislators.

The Oklahoma proposal was reached with the agreement of Native American tribal leaders and the racing industry, the governor's office said. Oklahoma Native American tribes already operate 80 unregulated casinos in the state.

Gov. Henry's proposal would allow Remington Park, Blue Ribbon Downs, and Will Rogers Downs to operate slot machines. It would be up to the legislature to determine how many machines would be allowed. Remington Park, which is losing millions of dollars a year, is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., the struggling racing giant that has been seeking expanded gambling at its many tracks.

The New York proposal would expand slots beyond the eight racetracks that are already authorized to operate them. Five new sites could be in New York City. New York racetracks are expected to lobby aggressively against the proposed expansion.

In other states, legislators are opening the new year with arguments about whether slots should be restricted to racetracks, a debate that surfaced in strength for the first time in 2003. The debates, along with Gov. Pataki's proposal to compete with racetrack slots, indicate that the racing industry is increasingly being viewed as a marginal player for new forms of gambling.

In Maryland, Gov. Robert Ehrlich and legislative leaders are still arguing about the proper mix of racing sites and non-racing sites for slots, but legislation of some sort is still considered a sure thing this year. The same arguments are taking place in Pennsylvania, which came close to passing a bill last year.

Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, and California are all expected to hear arguments about slot-machine legislation in one form or another this year as well.