The vote in November's election for governor likely will determine whether Maryland turns to slot machines to help solve its budget problems - and the difference between the two major candidates couldn't be more clear.
Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says she would do everything within her power to keep slot machines out. She thinks allowing them is bad public policy that would prove harmful to the state and its citizens.
Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made slots the centerpiece of his budget policy. He says permitting the machines at four horse tracks could generate $385 million to help fill the state's $1.7 billion shortfall.
And, he says, slots would help save Maryland's ailing horse racing industry, which is struggling to compete with tracks in nearby states that allow them.
During his two terms, Gov. Parris N. Glendening eventually adopted a "no slots, no casinos, no exceptions" policy. His position kept the issue from gaining any headway in the General Assembly, where key legislators are supportive of slots.
Townsend does not use Glendening's strong language. "That's his rhetoric, not mine," she said.
But she said that she also strongly opposes slots in Maryland - and would veto such legislation if the General Assembly approved it.
In Townsend's view, legalizing slots would lead to social problems, increase street crime and hurt small businesses. Those costs outweigh the benefit of additional revenue slots could generate, she said.
She said she would use her influence as governor to keep slots legislation from winning approval. "I would fight to make sure that a law permitting slots is not enacted," she said.
Asked what would happen if legislators passed a slots bill despite her opposition, she said: "It gets vetoed."
Ehrlich said that he would push for slots at four race track sites - Pimlico in Baltimore, Laurel at the northwestern tip of Anne Arundel County, Rosecroft in Prince George's County and at a track planned near Cumberland in Allegany County.
He said that he would allow voters where the tracks are located to "opt out" if they don't want slots in their jurisdiction.
`A moderate proposal'
"I think this is a moderate proposal that makes sense to the majority of Marylanders," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich said he is confident that slots can be restricted to the tracks, and said polls suggest most Marylanders support allowing slots there. He said there isn't the same degree of public support for independent casinos at other sites - a position he shares.
"Casinos bring a whole lot of other issues from a lifestyle standpoint," he said. "It represents a major progression with regard to gambling, as well as a different business environment."
Ehrlich said he would oppose any legislative proposal to allow slots at sites beyond the four tracks, but stopped short of saying he would definitely veto such a measure.
"My strong inclination would be to veto it," he said. "I don't think it will be anything we are going to have to deal with."
Ehrlich noted that Democratic legislative leaders, who are backing Townsend for governor, favor allowing slots only at race tracks. He said that makes it unlikely that any legislation could pass to extend slots to other venues.
"I'm sure other interests will want to become involved, but most of the major [political] players are on the same page," Ehrlich said. "This is an issue where elected officials will not want to get ahead of the general public, and the general public does not support freestanding casinos in ... Maryland."
Still, some experts on gambling say casinos are exactly what states end up getting when they allow slots at race tracks.
Tracks typically have 2,000 to 3,000 slot machines - as many as are found at big casinos in Las Vegas, said William N. Thompson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor who specializes in gambling and public policy.
"Those tracks will turn into casinos as soon as you put slots in them," he said.
Thompson questioned the wisdom of putting slots at a site like Pimlico, within walking distance for residents of poverty-stricken neighborhoods. "It's a bad choice," he said.
Ehrlich noted that Keno games run by the state lottery are in bars in many low-income neighborhoods. Slots are less regressive because they draw players from all income levels, not primarily the poor, he said. He said he would propose that slots be licensed and controlled through the lottery agency, as is done in some other states.
What impact slots will have on the governor's race remains to be seen. Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sees the issue as an insignificant factor.
Slots' impact on race
"I don't think it will motivate very many people to go out to the polls one way or the other," Norris said. "It's not a bread and butter issue."
Still, Ehrlich's pro-slots position doesn't sit well with conservative anti-gambling activists.
Barbara Knickelbein of Glen Burnie, a Republican who is co-chair of the anti-gambling group Nocasino Maryland, said she is voting for Townsend over Ehrlich.
"What other choice do I have?" she said. "Do I go to somebody who is totally pro slots, or to somebody who says that she is going to veto any slots bill? I have to go with her."
Not all members of Knickelbein's group share that view.
David A. Brigham, an equipment salesman from Montgomery County, said he plans to vote for Ehrlich - despite Ehrlich's pro-slots position - because he believes Ehrlich would be a better governor than Townsend. "She comes from a tax-and- spend history," he said. "I just think she's immensely weak."
Brigham said he has talked to other conservative, anti-gambling activists who also plan to vote against Townsend.
"What I hear over and over again is, `We don't think her anti-slots position will hold up'" if she becomes governor, he said. "Once she's in there, she'll cave."