Just say no

February 09, 2003

THE EHRLICH administration's slots legislation may set a new low standard for hip-shooting and poor planning. Legislative leaders say it needs substantial reworking, but what it really needs is a quick trip to the circular file. Short of that more prudent and responsible approach, the General Assembly should heed House Speaker Michael E. Busch's call for at least a year of study.

No amount of tweaking can fix the fundamental deficiencies of gambling as public policy. Given the potential change it could bring to the culture of Maryland, it ought to be as carefully planned as possible.

It is true that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his new team had little time to prepare their bill. It's true that Maryland has a deep budget hole to fill. But the state ought not to press blindly ahead, attempting to fix a complicated piece of legislation on the run. One of the Assembly's best characteristics is careful deliberation, preferably over one or two legislative sessions during which the inevitable bugs can be spotted and removed.

The dangers of a turn to gambling are manifest in the very drafting of this legislation. The bill does not even ask for a guarantee that racing will continue, a necessary hedge against the prediction that, in time, slots alone will be running at Pimlico and the other three tracks where slots are planned.

Properly anxious to keep racing's self-interested owners out of the bill-drafting process, the Ehrlich administration may have denied itself information it needed to make its bill acceptable to those who will, inevitably, have a major role in it: the moguls of gambling. They say now they won't pay the $350 million in up-front licensing fees; 24.8 percent of the slots take, they say, is not enough.

So right away Maryland finds itself vulnerable to the gambling industry's calculations of what is fair. The $1.8 billion deficit pushes everyone toward a bad deal. Once again, more time is needed to craft an airtight bill - if we must have slots at all.

The picture inevitably gets clouded by political money. Substantial campaign contributions have come already from gambling interests: $122,000 to Governor Ehrlich and more than $550,000 to a political campaign committee controlled by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the governor's chief ally in the push for slots.

Finally, almost no one outside the governor's office believes slots would adequately address the basic problem: Maryland has made spending commitments that go beyond its means. Slots revenue won't fill the gap.

Legislative analysts peg the initial two years' income at $400 million - $245 million short of the administration's hopes. So, if slots present so many potential problems - with no assurance of erasing the deficit - why not confront the problem as this state always has: by asking Marylanders to pay their own way?

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