05/17/2005 11:00PM

Magna makes push for slots


Officials from Magna Entertainment will meet with Michael Busch, the Maryland House Speaker, next week in an effort to convince Busch to support a special legislative session this year to pass a slots bill, Magna's vice chairman, Dennis Mills, said Wednesday.

The meeting, which has been scheduled for Tuesday, will "allow Magna to open its books on our investment in Maryland to show the state of affairs and the challenges for our shareholders," Mills said. Busch has opposed efforts to expand gambling in Maryland and has torpedoed several attempts to legalize slot machines at tracks.

The meeting is the latest effort by Magna to press for legislation permitting slots at Maryland racetracks following three years of failed attempts. Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Senate President Mike Miller have supported slots, and they met with Mills last Friday at the governor's mansion to discuss a special session.

Busch declined to attend that meeting, saying it was a political ploy to shift the blame for the failure of slots legislation to his supporters in the House. Busch's office did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Magna, the country's largest racetrack company, has lost $214 million over the last three years. Its aggressive lobbying for slots has led to speculation that Magna might threaten to move the Preakness from Pimlico Race Course to one of its other tracks, possibly Gulfstream Park in Florida, or to shutter its two Maryland tracks, Pimlico and Laurel Park in Anne Arundel County, if slots legislation were not approved in the next two years.

Mills said that Magna has made no threats during recent discussions with legislators and the governor. Mills did say, however, that he has discussed with legislators the number of jobs that would be lost if Magna's two tracks were to shut down.

"We've always found that the best way to get things done is to reach out to legislators, tell them what you are going to do, the rationale, the jobs that are involved, and that to me is a much better way to go," Mills said. "I think the notion of threats is just something that we are not going to be a part of, whether it be Maryland or anywhere else."

Earlier this year, Jim McAlpine, Magna's vice chairman of corporate development, said that Magna would find it difficult to spend money on either Laurel or Pimlico unless the company received alternative revenue streams.

Magna purchased a majority share in Laurel and Pimlico in 2002 for approximately $69 million. The company has pressed for slots legislation every year since then, but Busch and other members of the House have balked at the terms of bills supported by the Senate and Ehrlich.

Mills said that he had met with Busch approximately a week before the meeting at Gov. Ehrlich's mansion and that he believed the current stalemate among legislators was a matter of "communication misunderstandings."

This year, the Senate and the House passed different slots bills. The Senate bill would have allowed for slots at seven sites, including Pimlico and Laurel, while the House bill would have allowed for slots at four sites, including Laurel but not Pimlico. The Senate bill dedicated a much larger portion of slots revenue to racetracks.

Busch said after the House bill passed that his chamber would not accept any compromises. The two bills died without being reconciled.

Mills said that Magna still supports either bill, and he put no conditions on what Magna would support. "We've said publicly that we could live with either bill," Mills said. "But ultimately the legislators have to decide what they can live with in terms of their membership and their constituents and the complexities of the various counties."