Lessons from Las Vegas

February 14, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. should listen to the go-slow critics of his slot machine proposal and take a year to study its vast potential impact. And he would be well advised to start by interviewing his Republican colleague, Nevada's governor, Kenny C. Guinn.

Governor Guinn calls reliance on gambling fool's gold. His state's fiscal structure, he says, is almost as chancy as roulette.

Slots, table games and tourism don't pay the freight in the state where big-time legalized gambling was born. That was the case, Governor Guinn said, before the body blows of Sept. 11 and a faltering national economy. With gambling, government operates on shifting fiscal sands. Revenue rises and falls. Budgeting becomes a roll of the dice.

Nevada has already gone through aggressive budget cuts, so Mr. Guinn is proposing a series of new and increased taxes on businesses, gambling, liquor and cigarettes.

Maryland, in an urgent financial bind, may be headed down the same path as Nevada if the balance between income and spending isn't restored - and slots won't do that. Even if slots at Maryland's racetracks are approved - and once again we say they ought not to be - the machines won't produce enough money to meet the state's sharply growing commitment to public education and other services.

But Maryland could avoid Nevada's fate by acting now. This state has a panel of experts assembled by the General Assembly last year. They could offer their considered judgment on how best to modernize the tax structure - without gambling.

Nevada convened a similar panel, but only once deeply embroiled in crisis. Maryland has the chance to cope with its financial problem in a more measured way - starting with the realization that if Nevada, with all its experience, couldn't turn gambling into a reliable revenue source, who thinks Maryland's luck would be better?

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