01/10/2003 1:00AM

Maryland interest groups present cases


As the race for slot machines in Maryland gets out of the starting gate, the field of potential beneficiaries is rapidly swelling.

The Black Caucus, a group of African-American legislators, wants a piece of the action. Ocean Downs, a harness track, wants to be included. And many lawmakers in the state are getting in line to set up their constituencies for part of the projected windfall.

No slots bill has been introduced yet, but the state's new governor, Robert Ehrlich, has vowed to introduce a bill in the next several weeks. Ehrlich was elected on a platform of legalizing slots at tracks as a way to raise money to plug a portion of an estimated $1.2 billion budget gap in 2002.

Ehrlich's plan initially called for slots machines at four of the state's racetracks - the Maryland Jockey Club's Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park; Rosecroft Raceway; and a planned track for Allegany County. Ehrlich's office estimated that the slots could raise $400 million in 2002.

But Ehrlich's plan is already being pushed and pulled in a variety of directions.

On Jan. 6, a group of legislators that included members of the Black Caucus met at a Baltimore restaurant to discuss the slots proposal. When they emerged, they were asking why racetracks had been anointed as the sole gatekeepers.

"There is a sense that this issue has been too narrowly defined," said Rep. Albert Wynn, a Prince George's Country legislator who was quoted in the Baltimore Sun. "People are meeting other than the Maryland Jockey Club. People with votes."

Elijah Cumming, a Baltimore Democrat who is a member of the Black Caucus, said that the black communities in Maryland should receive a cut of any gambling proceeds, especially since Pimlico Race Course sits in a predominantly black neighborhood.

"It's going to be very difficult to get any slots legislation through without the Legislative Black Caucus," Cummings was quoted as saying in the Sun. "That's what politics is all about."

On Thursday, a coalition of racing interests submitted their plan to Ehrlich. The proposal would permit 18,000 slots in total split between five racetracks, including Ocean Downs on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Ehrlich had said in the past that he was opposed to slot machines at Ocean, citing local opposition.

Also under the racing proposal, the state and racetracks would split about 45 percent of the slots revenue, according to the Washington Post. The remainder would go to a variety of organizations, including the state breeding fund and the University of Maryland Animal Sciences Department.

Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, and Rosecroft Raceway would pay $75 million each for slots licenses for 4,500 machines, according to the racetrack proposal. The owner of Ocean Downs, Bill Rickman Jr., who is also building the racetrack in Allegany County, would pay $37,500 for a license fee for the right to 2,250 machines at each location.

Thomas Bowman, the head of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association who was tabbed by Ehrlich to lead the racing industry to a consensus, called the proposal "advisory and nothing more."