Slots players in Charles Town

Players to Charles Town Races & Slots enjoy a day with its slot machines. A busload of Baltimore-area residents heading to the racetrack believe slots would be good for Maryland. (Sun file photo by Doug Kapustin)

They piled into the black chartered bus in Baltimore on a sunny Wednesday morning -- weary at the hour, yet eager and excited. There were 38 of them.

They came with canes, walkers. One carried a portable oxygen tank. They moved slowly but deliberately, each settling comfortably into a seat for the 90-mile ride to play slot machines at Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia.

After stops in Towson and Pikesville, the bus would be on its way. Most of the passengers would be asleep before the charter hit Interstate 70, then heading onto U.S. Route 340 for the final stretch into Charles Town.

Their rest, however, only would be temporary.

"Let's go," Chuck Geisendaffer of Arbutus said, heading eagerly off the bus. "They're talking about getting slots in Maryland. I don't care where they get 'em -- I'm going."

Revenue infusion

It is Maryland residents like these whom Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hopes will pump millions of dollars into the state's economy instead of handing it over to West Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.

Ehrlich is proposing to legalize slot machines at three racetracks in Central Maryland. According to his most recent plan, 3,500 slots each would be placed at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Laurel Park and Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County -- as well as 1,000 more at a track planned for Allegany County.

Besides helping to reduce a $1.3 billion budget deficit, the revenues from these machines, Ehrlich has said, would be used to revitalize the state's horse racing industry and finance the Thornton Commission legislation adopted last year by the Assembly.

The legislation seeks to reduce inequities among the state's public schools. It would provide $1.3 billion in aid for schools by 2007.

In the Maryland General Assembly, the Senate has approved slots legislation. In the House of Delegates, it is sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee, being held there by Speaker Michael E. Busch, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who is a staunch opponent of slots. The House has approved a balanced budget without slots revenue.

The 90-day legislative session is scheduled to end April 7 but must continue if a budget has not been passed by both chambers.

'Growth opportunities'

As of June 30, the end of West Virginia's 2002 fiscal year, the state had 7,021 video lottery terminals at four racetracks -- 1,989 at Charles Town Races, 2,488 at Mountaineer Racetrack & Gaming Resort in Chester, 1,571 at Wheeling Downs in Wheeling and 973 at Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming in Nitro. Horses race at Charles Town and Mountaineer Park, while dogs race at the other two tracks. Each track also has off-track betting.

The total number of slots since has increased by 1,659, including by 723 at Charles Town Races.

In fiscal 2002, slots players lost $595.9 million at the four racetracks, according to the West Virginia Lottery. They spent $6.96 billion and won $6.36 billion.

At Charles Town Races, bettors spent $2.26 billion, winning $2.07 billion and losing $190.4 million, according to the Lottery. In fact, the racetrack's growth outpaced that of West Virginia's other three tracks last fiscal year.

These results have made West Virginia the fastest-growing jurisdiction among the 47 in the United States and Canada that comprise the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, an Ohio-based nonprofit industry group established 32 years ago.

West Virginia's total lottery sales grew by 42.2 percent in fiscal 2002, with 75 percent coming from slots, said David Gale, NASPL's executive director. Next was Rhode Island, with a 19.7 percent increase.