01/22/2003 12:00AM

Governor proposes 16,000 slots

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Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland is set to propose that state racetracks be allowed to operate 16,000 slot machines, a number in line with racing industry wishes but strongly opposed by some other politicians and interest groups in the state.

Under the proposal, according to the Baltimore Sun, the machines would be permitted at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, Rosecroft Raceway, and a yet-to-be-built track near Cumberland, in the western part of the state. Laurel, Pimlico, and Rosecroft would be allowed 4,500 machines each, while the new track would get 2,500 machines.

Ehrlich, who was sworn in a week ago, said the machines would generate $600 million toward the state budget by next year. Ehrlich, a Republican, supported slots during his campaign as a way of raising money for the state's beleaguered budget.

Two weeks ago, the racing industry released a proposal that had nearly identical numbers. That proposal differed, however, in permitting slots at Ocean Downs, a track near Maryland's eastern shore. Ehrlich has said that he opposes slots at Ocean, citing community concerns.

Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and a spokesman for the racing industry on the slots issue, said racing officials welcomed Ehrlich's plan.

"We're very pleased with what has been made public, because it's what we concluded was possible," Bowman said.

Critics of Ehrlich's proposal called the plan excessive. Del. Howard Rawlings, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a Democrat, said he would vote against Ehrlich's proposal if it were introduced in the legislature.

"They exceed the level of slot machines in Atlantic City and Las Vegas," said Rawlings, who was quoted in the Baltimore Sun. Rawlings also criticized Ehrlich's plan because it does not earmark enough revenue for schools.

Rawlings has circulated his own proposal that would permit 10,000 slot machines at four racetracks.

Representatives of neighborhood associations around Pimlico Race Course, which is located in a predominantly black neighborhood in Baltimore, also complained that the number of machines would create huge casinos that would increase traffic and social problems in the area.

Bowman said that he was concerned that opponents of slots would seize on the comparisons between Ehrlich's plan and the racing industry's proposal to lodge claims that the racing industry was dictating policy to the state, but he said that was not the case.

"He asked us to advise him, and obviously, he's paid attention to us," Bowman said.