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Tom Moore: Why Maryland needs slots –

(Map, News)

I support slots whole-heartedly. Part of it is due to my grandfather. When I was growing up, my mother would take my brother and I to her parents’ Civil War-era farmhouse in Warrenton, Va., to see Grandad.

My Grandad loved horses and bred them for years. One of his horses won the Virginia Gold Cup in the 1950s.

He would often ask to be driven to nearby Charles Town Racetrack for the day. When Grandad was at the track, he was in his element. Even as he became old and frail, he could still pick winners. Horse-betting is, like most other things, a skill that has to be learned and then perfected. The luck involved is mostly for beginners who don’t know how to bet. Horsemen like my grandfather knew the game.

Del. Jon Cardin, D-11 argues that slots won’t really help racing in Maryland. As he correctly points out, in other jurisdictions where slots exist at the track, the handle (amount bet on horses) rarely increases, while solid gains have been shown instead in the size of the purses.

What this means in layman’s terms is that slots won’t suddenly make more people bet on horses, but they will increase the money spent at the track — and the number of people at the track.

Increases in purse size mean that more jockeys will want to race in Maryland and more marquee races will be held in the state. Or, put another way, Maryland will lose fewer marquee races, like the recently canceled DeFrancis Dash.

It will also mean that track owners will have money to spend on track improvements, making Maryland tracks more competitive with those in other states.

Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s 2004 proposal of adding 4,000 machines would have brought the state between $500 million and $1.3 billion, depending on whose estimate you believed.

No doubt track owner Magna Entertainment Corp. and the Maryland Jockey Club have been making unreasonable demands on the control of the money. Since slots have been billed as a way to save Maryland racing, the Jockey Club and Magna ought to be happy that slots are even on the table and start being part of the solution rather than the problem.

One simple solution is for the state to allow the machines only at racetracks and tax the revenue, with the caveat that at least 20 percent of all money earned must go to track improvements, and at least 10 percent to a locally-run neighborhood improvement fund to help support neighborhoods in track areas.

“The thing with slots is NIMBY — not in my back yard,” says Del. Nathaniel Oaks, D-41, who represents the area surrounding Pimlico. “You see, I have two large constituencies: African-Americans who live near the track, and Orthodox Jews who live further out, and both groups are concerned about the impact on the neighborhood,” say Oaks, “Nobody wants slots here.”

State Comptroller Peter Franchot also spoke against slots recently. “Let’s be honest,” Franchot said, “There is no such thing as limited slots. In state after state where slots have been legalized, the debate about expanding them begins before the first slot machine is turned on.”

But the state has the authority to control slots and to limit them only to racetracks. The crime argument is much debated, but few real answers exist for slots-only states without casinos.

In Bangor, Maine, where slots were introduced in 2005, police officials recently discredited an anti-casino group’s claim that slots caused a 22 percent increase in crime, according to the Bangor Daily News.

In Maryland, former Attorney General Joseph Curran said in a report that casinos bring enormous crime increases with them. He cited a 199 percent increase in Atlantic City’s violent crime and a 481 percent increase in its larceny rate in the first 15 years casinos existed.

However, slots are not the same thing as casinos. Slots are simply one form of isolated gambling, like horse racing. The bottom line is that the state needs the money, and horse racing needs saving.

With state control and a limitation only to racetracks, slots are the answer the state needs for lowering the $1.7 billion deficit and for saving a struggling industry in the process.