More Gambling on States' Ballots Nov. 4

 

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley(D) once called slot machines a "morally bankrupt" way to fund education. Now he's the state's top cheerleader for a Nov. 4 ballot measure that would raise gambling dollars for schools.

In that role, he is getting some new help from the sour national economy. With voters feeling squeezed by falling house values and this fall's declining stock market, O'Malley's key reason for pushing to legalize up to 15,000 slot machines in Maryland is being dramatically underscored. Slots will hold down state taxes and help fend off budget cuts, he insists.

The popular video gaming terminals - some that would be added near Maryland's famed horse-racing tracks - are meant to entice local gamblers to stay home instead of playing the slots in next-door Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

If the slots measure fails, O'Malley wrote in an e-mail sent directly to voters Oct. 28, "every county, city and local jurisdiction in our great state will be forced to cut funding for vital services or raise taxes."

Voters will go to the polls a week after the state cut $300 million in spending, abolished about 890 mostly vacant job positions and projected a $1 billion shortfall for next year. Against that bad news, backers of the slots measure are reminding voters that opening new gaming venues eventually could generate an estimated $600 million a year, though that's several years away.

Gambling questions also will be on Nov. 4 ballots in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Missouri and Ohio. At stake in Arkansas is whether to permit a state lottery to fund college scholarships, while Missouri and Colorado would tweak the rules to expand gambling that's already allowed. Ohio and Maine each will decide whether to open a casino.

While Maryland is one of 42 stateswith a lotteryand already allows betting on horses at racetracks, slots have been hotly debated in Annapolis since at least 1994. That year, newly elected governor Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, laid down his anti-slots gauntlet with a slogan: "No slots, no casinos, no exceptions."

From 2002 to 2006, then-governor Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was unable to win approval for slots from the Democratic-majority General Assembly, even though he made it a centerpiece of his administration.

His successor, O'Malley, had derided slots while mayor of Baltimore but is now embracing them as a necessity, both to fight budget woes and to keep horse racing alive in the state. Last year he called legislators into special session and proposed that voters be allowed to choose whether to join surrounding states that were embracing state-sponsored gambling, particularly in the form of "racinos," that combine race tracks with other forms of betting.

The question on the ballot is whether to change Maryland's constitution to allow as many as 15,000 machines with the " primary purpose of providing funds for public education." The wording specifies certain locations, with an expectation that machines would be set up at the Laurel Park racetrack, among other places.

Arguments for and against slots have barely budged since 1994. Those in favor say they will bring much-needed state revenue and will shore up the ailing horse-racing industry. Those opposed argue that slot machines amount to a tax on the poor, increase crime and addiction, and may not even bring money to the state, once social service and infrastructure costs are taken into account.

Voters in Maryland never before have had the chance to express their point of view at the ballot box. A Washington Post poll on Oct. 22 showed 62 percent of likely voters in favor of slot machines, 36 percent opposed and 2 percent undecided.

"I think people are tired of the issue, for one thing," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, which supports the slots ballot question. "Most people have made up their mind and just want to vote." She said the horse-racing industry would have disappeared in Delaware if slots had not brought people to the tracks.

Slots as an issue is complicated enough to create strange bedfellows. Religious groups and conservatives tend to oppose it for moral reasons, while the Maryland State Teachers Association, Maryland Retailers Association and Maryland Horse Breeders are among the groups in favor of the measure and the revenue it can bring.

In a move that surprised many, Halsey Minor, the founder of CNET technology news who now is considering purchasing Magna Entertainment and its racetracks at Laurel Park and Pimlico, spoke out against slots. "Slots do not belong with thoroughbred racing," said Minor at a press conference with state Comptroller Peter Franchot, also a slots opponent.

Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, a group that formed in 2003, said the poor economy will make the slots proposal more likely to pass, though he's quick to add that he doesn't think slots will solve Maryland's economic woes.

"My opinion is, there's no public policy justification for this," he said. He said he does not believe the machines will bring in the anticipated revenues, partly because - unlike surrounding states - Maryland would bar smoking and free food and drinks at its gaming venues. "Who's going to gamble here?" he asked.

But Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said the intricacies of the arguments are lost on most people. "Most people have not thought about details," he said. "It's money versus social problems."

 
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