03/19/2003 1:00AM

Maryland slots to Senate


With more than a little help from Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the Maryland senate, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. scored a much-needed victory Tuesday night when a committee approved a bill to allow slot machines at four racetracks in the state.

The Budget and Taxation Committee voted by the unexpectedly strong margin of 11-2 to send the bill to the Senate floor, where even foes concede it is likely to pass - though not without a fight.

Miller signaled a willingness to tie the bill to the 2004 budget and force the general assembly into a lengthy extended session to win passage of slots over the objections of house speaker Michael E. Busch. The 90-day legislative session is scheduled to end April 7 but must continue if a budget has not been passed.

The bill gives an ambitious share of the slots proceeds to education - 46 percent. What remained unclear was whether the racetrack owners would support a bill giving them 39 percent of the proceeds - less than in surrounding states and less than the governor's original plan.

Joseph A. De Francis, chief executive of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said that he would have no comment on the bill. The other two tracks that would get slots are Rosecroft and a track to be built in Allegany County.

The bill gave horsemen just enough to bring them aboard. Horsemen had been threatening to withhold support because they were dissatisfied with the amount Ehrlich provided for racing purses in his original plan. The bill raises their share from the administration's proposed 3.4 percent to about 5.5 percent.

"It's not all we asked for or all that we want, but it gets us much closer," said Alan Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

The Senate measure allows 3,500 slots each at Pimlico, Laurel, and Rosecroft racetracks and 1,000 at the Allegany track, but it differs in other details from Ehrlich's initial proposal.

The bill holds the track's share of slots proceeds to 39 percent of the gross, down from 43.6 percent. But the bill spares the track owners $120 million in licensing fees, substituting a relatively modest application fee of $5 million per track.

The bill sweetens the package for legislators because it pushes the share allocated for education from 42 percent to 46 percent.

- The Baltimore Sun