Just say no

January 10, 2003

WITH THE PROSPECT of lucrative slot machine business, an unseemly parade of profiteers has now descended upon Annapolis.

Lobbyists for vendors trumpet connections with legislative decision-makers and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Legislators, singly and in groups, already are lining up to claim a share of the coming bonanza for their friends in business. Even the estate of a dead millionaire has bellied up to the pay window. (The late Jack Kent Cooke, former owner of the Washington Redskins, cut a slots deal with track interests after lending them money. Oh, and the track owners get a slice, too.)

It's an unseemly but predictable prelude to Mr. Ehrlich's slots-at-the-tracks proposal. He offers slots as a solution to Maryland's prodigious, $1.8 billion budget deficit, saying that up to $800 million a year might be available.

Even if that figure holds true, the General Assembly must say no.

Slots could lead Maryland into a quagmire of distasteful relationships with big and little gambling.

And Marylanders apparently see what's in store. A recent poll of 1,200 respondents taken for The Sun shows slots are acceptable to fewer than half those sampled - 48 percent. Some 39 percent are opposed. But a substantial majority - 66 percent - believes slots would eventually flower in other venues: the Inner Harbor, Ocean City hotels, you name it.

For that reason, perhaps, two-thirds of the sample want the issue decided by referendum in 2004. At least then, if the measure passes, slots could be limited.

Pressured by their knowledge of the state's precarious fiscal state, some members of the Assembly, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, want an up or down vote on the issue this year. They oppose the more lengthy approach required by the referendum because the need is now - but so is the danger.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat and slots opponent, says slots legislation will not move in his chamber unless all 43 Republican delegates vote yes - a standard he sets knowing some members of the GOP won their seats running against slots. In the end, the proposal should be defeated not by partisan maneuvering but by its lack of merit.

Governor-elect Ehrlich, in time-honored political fashion, hopes to win the slots question by linking its passage to continuation of state aid to counties. The amount of money he hopes to raise in the first year - by charging hundreds of millions of dollars in slots licensing fees - roughly matches the amount of noneducation aid to the counties. So he's betting county officials will join his pro-slots lobbying force.

It's another foretaste of the future, one in which every Marylander becomes a slots promoter because every Marylander will want one or more of the programs paid for - the new governor says - with slots revenue.

It's the wrong way to go. The Assembly must be honest with Marylanders: Government services such as public education, wastewater treatment, mental health clinics and public safety should be paid for the old-fashioned way, through taxes.

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