Empty promises

January 31, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s ill-advised slot machine bill attempts to win supporters by committing every quarter of its revenue to education.

But promises cannot overcome the fundamental error of gambling as fiscal policy: Slot machines should not be used to pay for government - and particularly not in response to what could be a temporary problem, the $1.8 billion deficit.

Maryland must pay for education and other essential government services the way it always has: via taxes. Taxpayers may have to pay more - but surely that is preferable to installing 10,500 slot machines -that's for starters - that would change the character of the state.

Mr. Ehrlich's inaugural speech effectively demonstrated the needs that must be met by government. But the subtext of that presentation was impossible to miss: If slots aren't passed, people will suffer. The budget will have to be cut.

That's his choice, because there are other reasonable ways of continuing those services. A commission of legislators and fiscal experts recently laid out a menu of ways in which the tax structure could be adjusted to deal forthrightly with the current deficit and the built-in imbalance between spending commitments and projected income.

In a past budget crisis, the General Assembly approved an income tax surcharge on the wealthiest taxpayers, lifting it when the bills were paid, when the budget came back into balance and when the economy grew stronger.

With the governor's bill before it, Maryland's Assembly must follow the lead of slots opponents such as House Speaker Michael E. Busch who urge, if not outright rejection of the proposal, at least a careful examination of this sharp departure.

Mr. Busch quite properly wonders why track owners should command such an enormous payday: 24.8 percent of the proceeds in the governor's bill. Perhaps this is because they can front the money needed for Mr. Ehrlich to balance his budget this year. Owners of the four proposed slots venues - three tracks in central Maryland and one in Allegany County - would pony up $350 million in licensing fees.

The risks slots impose are too profound to accept. Let other states line up for the problems that come inevitably with slots and casinos: more crime, family breakup, lost revenue for businesses driven under by competition from slots.

Who thinks Maryland can escape that scenario?

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