11/01/2007 11:00PM

Slots near approval in Maryland

EmailThe Maryland Legislature appears headed toward approving slot machines in the state during a special session over the next few weeks, but the details over where the machines will be located remains up in the air.

Two proposals have been offered, one by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and the other by House Republicans. Along with a slew of tax changes, each proposal would seek to use revenues from the machines to help close an estimated $1.7 billion budget shortfall while subsidizing purses for Thoroughbred and Standardbred races by as much as $100 million a year.

The proposals were the subject of hearings Friday at the state Capitol by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

Laurel Park, which is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., canceled its race card Friday, so that employees of the track and local trainers could attend a rally prior to the hearings in support of slots at racetracks.

Under O'Malley's plan, 15,000 slot machines would be legalized at five sites in the state. Though the proposal does not identify specific sites, language in the proposal would almost guarantee that the sites include Laurel Park - but not Magna's other Maryland track, Pimlico Racecourse - and Ocean Downs, which is owned by Delaware Park owner Bill Rickman.

The O'Malley proposal would require a referendum that would be held in November 2008.

The House Republican proposal would allow the state to auction off licenses for six slot-machine casinos. The proposal anticipates raising $850 million through the auction, and no specific sites are included in the legislation, although counties would be limited to one casino each.

In both bills, horse owners would receive tens of millions of dollars in purse subsidies each year. One common critique among opponents of legalizing slot machines has been the windfall the machines might provide to casino operators, but the subsidies for purses have not been subject to criticism, in part because of the ubiquity of the machines and the subsidies in states like Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

On Friday, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - who under Maryland's former Republican governor was an opponent of legalized gambling - said an entire tax package that includes slot machines will likely be debated in the Senate next week, according to the Baltimore Sun. The proposal also includes a possible increase in the sales tax and changes to the state income tax.

"Hopefully, we can go around the clock as much as possible all week until we can get the entire - that's entire - package passed," the Sun quoted Miller as saying after a meeting with legislative leaders and O'Malley on Friday.