Slots companies lobbying heavily within Maryland

The prospect of thousands of slot machines at Maryland racetracks and elsewhere in the state has attracted intense attention from manufacturers, which are pouring money into lobbying efforts in hopes of expanding their market.

A gold rush by companies that make and support slot machines is going on in Pennsylvania, where the state has authorized more than 61,000 statewide.

Maryland is considering plans to allow about one-fourth as many, but International Game Technology of Reno, Nev., the nation's leading slots manufacturer, has donated $8,000 to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and pumped $100,000 into a national campaign fund associated with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, since 2002. Last year, the company spent $57,000 on lobbying in Maryland.

GTech, the Providence, R.I., company that runs the software supporting video lottery terminals at New York racetracks, spent nearly $32,000 on lobbying in Maryland last year, and other companies are following every twist and turn in the state's slots debate.

"We've been watching it for a very, very long time," said Lisa Litteri, a spokeswoman for Scientific Games, a New York slots and lottery support software company.

Scott Milne, IGT's government affairs director, said the company has employed Annapolis lobbyist Alan Rifkin - one of the top slots lobbyists in the state - for at least 15 years. Slot machine companies are heavily focused on increasing their business by expanding into new markets, so IGT has watched the situation in Maryland very closely, he said.

"It is important to open new markets," Milne said. "New market opportunities, in the U.S. anyway, are what all the manufacturers are looking at."

GTech won a contract last week to provide support software and services for the slot machine program being developed in Pennsylvania. The company's main business is running lotteries, but much of the company's growth is tied to finding new markets for its slot machine support software, said spokesman Bob Vincent.

"There are only so many new lotteries," he said.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said slots manufacturers and other gambling interests are clearly trying to buy influence in Annapolis.

"To make a gambling analogy, it shows that IGT is holding the best hand among slots companies right now to see who will win a contract," Browning said. "They started a conversation, they've been to fund-raisers and they're jockeying to be first in line."

Minor Carter, an anti-slots lobbyist, said he is outnumbered and outgunned by the dozens of lobbyists working for gambling interests. The industry has hired skilled advocates who are very helpful to their cause, he said.

But while slots opponents in Maryland haven't been able to keep up in spending on their cause, they have matched the gambling lobby through extensive organizing in the community, Carter said.

"We've been able to rally churches, bring people down for rallies and to speak at hearings," he said. "Our strength has been the grass roots we've been able to bring to bear."
Two legislative bills

The House of Delegates and state Senate have passed different slot machine gambling bills that would have to be reconciled and approved by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. before slots are allowed in Maryland:

House bill: Would allow a total of 9,500 slot machines at four locations in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties. Locations and operators to be decided through competitive bids by a commission controlled by the legislature. House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said any changes to the bill would cause it to fail in his chamber.

Senate bill: Closely follows governor's proposal, would allow total of 15,500 machines at four racetracks and three other locations statewide. Locations and operators would be decided by a commission controlled by the governor. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has referred the House bill - which he calls deeply flawed - to the Budget and Taxation Committee for a hearing.