01/27/2004 1:00AM

New slot plans in Maryland


Gov. Robert Ehrlich of Maryland has proposed adding slot machines to four racetracks in the state along with building two new casinos along the state's major highway in a compromise plan designed to satisfy critics of racetrack-only gambling licenses.

Ehrlich unveiled the plan on Monday, one day before a scheduled hearing on expanded gambling in the state legislature. At the hearing, House Speaker Michael Busch, a critic of awarding gambling licenses solely to racetracks, was expected to unveil a report calling for slot-machine licenses to be put up for competitive bids.

The new proposals indicate that the debate over the future of expanded gambling in Maryland is drifting further away from using slot machine revenues to prop up the racing industry. Bills introduced last year to legalize slot machines at racetracks got nowhere in the legislature, largely because of Busch's criticism of "enriching" racetrack owners.

Busch's proposal is expected to designate a small share of the slot revenues to the racing industry to subsidize purses, but far short of the percentage racetracks say they need to reverse declining business trends at the state's beleaguered tracks.

Alan Foreman, the chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents the Maryland horsemen, said Monday afternoon that details of the proposal were still sketchy. But he said that horsemen had accepted the fact that racetracks would not be monopoly locations for slot machines, and that there could be some benefits for horsemen because of that.

"As long as purses get a portion of the revenues, I don't see us opposing it," Foreman said. "There are probably better locations for slots than racetracks in the state, so we just need to share in the proceeds."

Officials of the Maryland Jockey Club did not return phone calls on Monday.

Ehrlich's plan would allow a total of 11,500 slot machines at three existing tracks, Pimlico, Laurel, and Rosecroft, and another yet-to-be-built track in Western Maryland. Pimlico and Laurel are both owned by the Maryland Jockey Club, the majority of which is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp.

The plan would also put slot machines at two freestanding sites along I-95, the highway that runs north-south in Maryland and connects Washington D.C. to Baltimore. Those sites would be put up for competitive bid and allowed to operate 2,000 slot machines each.

One of the freestanding casinos would ideally be located near the border with Delaware. A commission controlled by the governor would oversee the bidding and selection process, according to Ehrlich's plan.