Get Ready for ‘Lobbypalooza’ When Legislature Debates Race Track Package

Maryland Governor's Office photo

The push to win legislative approval for the deal to improve two horse racing tracks in Maryland will be a veritable “lobbypalooza” next year.

Most of Annapolis’ top lobbyists represent interests that want to see the deal done, and they’ll be working their magic and calling in their chits for the multimillion-dollar proposal to improve Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park and guarantee that the Preakness Stakes remains in Baltimore.

Yet it is slowly becoming clear to supporters of the race track plan that they’ll have to spend a good bit of time striving to convince lawmakers from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties – who are wondering what the proposal means for their jurisdictions, and whether they can wring extra funding out of the state for their constituents – to go along with the deal.

“We’re trying to determine what’s in the deal for Prince George’s County, if anything,” said Del. Michael A. Jackson (D), chairman of the county’s House delegation and a member of the Appropriations Committee. “We have to know if there’s a play for us.”

To review: Negotiators for the Stronach Group, which owns the racetracks, the city of Baltimore, and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association struck a deal two weeks ago to improve both racetracks and revitalize the struggling Park Heights neighborhood, where Pimlico is located.

The deal would give Pimlico to the city, which would use the site for a variety of purposes that could help revive the neighborhood. Stronach would still run the Preakness there, but would transfer the rest of its racing season to Laurel Park, which would also be in line for needed improvements. At the same time, the Stronach Group would give up a racing training facility in Bowie, which could be given to the city of Bowie or to Bowie State University.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Maryland Stadium Authority would issue $348 million in bonds to pay for much of the project. Some casino revenues, which are already going into funds for racetrack maintenance and Baltimore City’s coffers, would also be used.

The deal is being held in most political corners as a “win-win-win,” as House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) put it recently. It is nearly impossible to find a Maryland political leader or policymaker who doesn’t want to keep the Preakness in Baltimore or see the state’s storied racing industry succeed.

But there will inevitably be skeptics of the deal. And some lawmakers will need convincing in the upcoming General Assembly session that such a major investment is worth it – especially when the legislature is being asked to approve record funding commitments to improve the state’s public schools.

In fact, some lawmakers and political strategists have suggested that the proposal to benefit the tracks and the proposal to fund the recommendations of the so-called Kirwan Commission are linked.

What’s plainly apparent is that lobbying firms with major firepower will be called upon to get the racetrack deal across the finish line.

The list starts with Rifkin Weiner Livingston LLC, whose senior partner, Alan M. Rifkin, helped negotiate the deal for the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the tracks for the Stronach Group. Rifkin’s firm has long represented the jockey club in Annapolis – though Rifkin himself has not been a registered lobbyist for 14 years.

Another gold-plated Annapolis firm, Manis Canning & Associates, also represents the Jockey Club. Also involved in lobbying for the plan will be Harris Jones & Malone LLC, which represents the Greater Baltimore Committee; D. Robert Enten, representing the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association; Frank D. Boston III, representing the Maryland Horse Council and the Maryland State Fair; and Perry, White, Ross & Jacobson, representing the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. No doubt other hired guns will become involved.

The city of Baltimore, which recently retooled its intergovernmental relations shop under new Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D), will be an integral part of the lobbying push, and so will the government of Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), because Laurel Park is in Anne Arundel.

Although he is not a registered lobbyist, William H. Cole IV, who until recently was the director of Baltimore Development Corporation and was the city’s chief negotiator on the racetrack deal, will likely continue to help push the proposal.

“I told [Young] I’d be happy to see it through Annapolis,” Cole said in an interview. “I’ll continue to help the city in any way.”

Cole, who has worked to bolster Pimlico for years, is a former state legislator and Baltimore city councilman with a wealth of contacts in the State House.

It is not clear if there will be a concerted effort to lobby against the plan. Maryland’s half dozen casinos, which have an uneasy relationship with the state’s racing industry, have been silent about the racetrack deal so far. A few representatives of the casinos have said privately that they’re waiting to learn more about the agreement and its potential impact on their revenues.

Political Insiders took notice when The Baltimore Sun reported this week that the new political action committee for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is holding a high-dollar fundraiser at the Maryland Live! Casino near Arundel Mills Mall. Hogan’s PAC has signaled that it plans to campaign against Kirwan Commission recommendations that call for tax increases. And Hogan in recent weeks has been increasingly critical of the Kirwan plan.

Hogan has been silent on the race track proposal to date, though his press spokesmen have reiterated the governor’s commitment to keeping the Preakness in Baltimore. That his fundraiser is being held at a casino owned by David Cordish, the casino owner who has most publicly been at odds with the Maryland racing industry, and that Hogan’s campaign chairman, Thomas Kelso, is also Hogan’s appointed chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, is purely coincidental, the governor’s political advisers say.

The stadium authority does not need to take official action on the racetrack plan until authorized to issue bonds by the General Assembly. But a study the stadium authority conducted a few years ago on the viability of the Pimlico track has been used as a talking point for negotiators who hammered out the recent deal.

Moreover, Rifkin said in an interview, the stadium authority turned the data that was collected for the study available to negotiators and their consultants over the past few months – and he suggested that Hogan helped make that happen.

“The governor was very, very gracious,” Rifkin said.

While the lawyer acknowledged that an intense lobbying campaign would be needed to pass the legislation to boost the racetrack plan, he predicted that support in the legislature would grow.

“Our goal was to present the best plan that we could – and we think we have,” Rifkin said.

The Montgomery and Prince George’s factor

As supporters of the racetrack deal plot their strategy for the General Assembly, they feel confident that they’ll enjoy strong, if not unanimous, support among the Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel delegations. But they acknowledge that they’ll have to focus their most aggressive sales job on the two biggest delegations in the legislature – Montgomery and Prince George’s.

It’s possible that lawmakers from those jurisdictions will have great leverage as the funding and policy debates unfold.

Prince George’s House members – meeting as the Democratic caucus of the delegation, so they could gather behind closed doors without advanced notice – got together Monday in Annapolis to discuss several issues, though the racetrack deal topped the list.

“That was primarily to make sure every member was in the room to discuss what we knew, what we’d heard, what it meant,” said Jackson, the delegation chairman.

The fate of the training facility in Bowie is a matter of concern for Prince George’s lawmakers – even though Bowie city and university officials seem predisposed to like the idea of the property reverting to them. Jackson said the potential impact of the deal on the MGM Casino at National Harbor is also of interest to county lawmakers.

Del. Jazz Lewis, the chairman of the Prince George’s delegation’s Democratic caucus, said the county’s legislators do not want to get in the way of improvements to the Park Heights neighborhood in Baltimore that would result from the deal.

“We’re supportive of Baltimore continuing to host the Preakness,” he said.

Five different Prince George’s legislators said in interviews this week that the delegation discussed whether there is a way for the county to leverage their support for the racetrack deal for more economic development aid, similar to what Baltimore City would receive. Seeking more education funding is also being discussed, they said.

Similar conversations are beginning to take place among lawmakers from Montgomery County – where there is even less of a connection to the racing industry than there is in Prince George’s.

One lobbyist who will be an integral part of the campaign to win approval for the racetrack deal said Montgomery lawmakers may hold the key to its success – a heady and unlikely position for Montgomery officials, who aren’t known for playing legislative hardball in Annapolis.

There’s some conjecture that Montgomery lawmakers could hold out for extra education funding in exchange for support for the racetrack plan. But the county isn’t ready to make an “ask” yet, said Del. Marc Korman (D), chairman of the Montgomery House delegation.

“From my conversations with people, they’re trying to figure out what it means and what we’d be asked to support,” he said.  

[email protected]

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here