01/12/2004 12:00AM

Poll favors slots at racetracks

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A proposal by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland to legalize slot machines at the state's racetracks has widespread support among voters and is far more popular than bids to establish casinos or bring slots to bars and restaurants, a Washington Post poll has found.

Ehrlich has proposed legalizing 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks as a way to generate as much as $800 million annually for public schools. The State Senate passed his plan last year, but it was defeated in the House of Delegates.

The poll of 1,000 residents, conducted last week, found that 59 percent favor slots at the racetracks.

Despite that support, most people said they wanted legislators to focus on other issues, such as education and crime. Only 12 percent said that Ehrlich and the Legislature should make slots their highest priority, with 53 percent classifying it as a "low" priority or not a priority at all.

Many residents said they wanted to confine slots to racetracks, mainly to keep the machines from spreading elsewhere. Sixty-five percent said they opposed allowing slots in locations other than racetracks, such as bars, hotels, or restaurants.

Although the governor has touted slots as a way to revive the state's flagging racing industry, only 2 percent said they wanted to expand gambling primarily for that purpose. Rather, the majority viewed slot machines as a source of revenue for filling the state's budget gap.