Plan for slots in Maryland worries Virginia

ALEXANDRIA — Three times every week, a 47-seat bus packed with hopeful gamblers departs from the James River Bus Lines terminal in Richmond and heads north.

Destination: Dover Downs, the horse- and car-racing complex in Delaware’s capital city, a four-hour drive up Interstate 95. But like the thousands of other riders on dozens of other buses that converge on Dover each day, few plan on playing the ponies.

Instead, they’re headed to Dover Downs Slots, the racetrack’s glittery, 80,000-square-foot Las Vegas-style gambling palace, where 2,000 slot machines await those looking for a payoff for wagering their nickels, quarters and dollars.

Operating every day except for Christmas and Easter, Dover Downs Slots has proved a popular destination for gamblers from all around the mid-Atlantic since it opened seven years ago.

But if Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. prevails, Virginians may not have to travel quite so far to challenge the one-armed bandits — a prospect some officials on the south side of the Potomac River find alarming.

Ehrlich, the first Republican to serve as Maryland governor since Spiro Agnew was elected in 1966, wants to place 10,500 slots machines at four Maryland racetracks — Pimlico in Baltimore, a yet-to-be-built track in western Maryland and two tracks in the Washington area, Laurel Park in Laurel and Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington.

The slots proposal is central to Ehrlich’s plan to close Maryland’s $2 billion budget gap and revive the state’s sagging Thoroughbred horse-racing industry. His plan adds Maryland to the list of cash-strapped state governments, including those in Pennsylvania and New York, rejecting tax increases and instead turning to legalized gambling to plug gaping budget holes.

In Maryland, Ehrlich’s proposal has led to an impassioned debate in Annapolis about the pros and cons of expanding legalized gambling. It has also led to growing concern in Virginia, especially populous Northern Virginia, separated from Maryland by the Potomac River and located just a short distance from both the Laurel and Rosecroft racetracks.

In its waning days, the Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging the state’s northern neighbor to keep slots away from its shores. The resolution said that Maryland slots could send the perceived ills of legal gambling into the Old Dominion.

The concerns voiced by Virginia officials are threefold.

They worry about the moral and social impact of expanded legalized gambling within easy reach of state residents. They fear a repeat of the 1940s and 1950s, when gambling was legal in parts of Maryland and flourished off the Virginia shoreline of the Potomac River, which is part of Maryland.

And they believe that expanded legalized gambling in Maryland will inevitably lead to pressure for more gambling in the Old Dominion.

“This will slide south, from Annapolis to Richmond,” said Prince William Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-13th, the chief sponsor of the anti-gambling resolution. “Some people want it here, and they will look at what’s going on in Annapolis as a green light to start lobbying here.”

Political opposition to legalized gambling in Virginia runs strong, however. The state has just one pari-mutuel horse-racing track, Colonial Downs in New Kent County, and four off-track betting parlors. In 1994, a proposal to allow riverboat casinos in Virginia was rejected by the General Assembly.

But gambling foes in Virginia fear that the approval of slots in Maryland could create political momentum in Virginia, and some are aggressively trying to stop it.

Last week, during a hearing in Annapolis on the issue, U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-10th, took an extraordinary step. The Northern Virginian crossed political boundaries and decried the pet project of a fellow Republican, traveling to Annapolis to testify against Ehrlich’s slots proposal.

Though he is a friend and former congressional colleague of Ehrlich’s, Wolf is also perhaps the fiercest opponent of legalized gambling in Congress. He said the negative effects of expanded gambling in Maryland inevitably will spill into Virginia.

“If slots come to Maryland, there will be great pressure to bring gambling to Virginia,” Wolf said. “How could I, in good conscience, turn a blind eye to allowing slot machines just across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from my state? The high-water mark of the Potomac laps up against my congressional district and there is a history of gambling on piers extending from the shores of Virginia into the Potomac.”

Some officials worry that is where Maryland slots are headed. Maryland gambling already has a foothold in Virginia. At the Riverboat on the Potomac restaurant in Colonial Beach, patrons can bet at a Maryland off-track betting facility, play Keno and buy lottery tickets from both states.

“It won’t take long before [slots] leave the racetracks and have a limited expansion to other venues,” said state Stafford Sen. John H. Chichester, R-28th. “And then two years later, have a limited expansion to other venues until they proliferate into every corner of Maryland — including Colonial Beach.”

Gambling proponents in Maryland consider potential gamblers in both Virginia and the District of Columbia as rich targets for Maryland racetrack casinos. The Ehrlich administration projects that about one-quarter of the $1.4 billion in annual gross revenue it expects from slots would come from the pockets of out-of-state gamblers.

Last month, Maryland House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr. told the Baltimore Sun that Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., would be a great market for Maryland slots.

Redmer, a Republican, boasted that Virginians could soon be helping to foot the bill for Maryland public schools, since Maryland’s slice of slots revenue is earmarked for education.

“For years, Maryland dollars have been educating Delaware kids,” he said. “I hope we create the opportunity to have Virginia dollars educate Maryland kids,” he said.

Ehrlich administration officials make a similar point.

“Clearly, the Virginia and [Washington] markets are going to be targeted heavily,” said Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick.

Gambling-industry analysts predict that Rosecroft Raceway, located just across the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge from Alexandria, would derive 60 percent of its business from out-of-state gamblers. Within a 25-mile radius of the track are the most populous parts of Northern Virginia. The track is about a two-hour drive from Richmond.

Anti-gambling advocates also fear that the introduction of slots in Maryland will lead to full-fledged casinos, further exacerbating competition among states to chase gambling dollars. These foes note that Ehrlich, as a Maryland state legislator, sponsored a proposal that in 1992 would have permitted casino gambling at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

That proposal went nowhere, however, and Ehrlich’s current proposal would allow only slots at the four racetracks.

Whatever scale of gambling, it is no cure to any state’s fiscal woes, according to Wolf.

“Gambling is no panacea for economic problems,” he said. “In fact, it can exacerbate difficult economic circumstances because of the significant social costs. Whatever decision is made will have an impact on Marylanders and non-Marylanders alike for generations to come.”

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