A compelling interest

February 18, 2003

ADEEP BUDGET deficit pushes Maryland toward introducing slot machine gambling. But if more momentum is needed, campaign contributions from gambling interests are eager to provide it.

Anyone who thinks the high rollers won't try to roll over the legislative process should take a look at the money already flowing into campaign accounts in Maryland -- at least $600,000 over the last four years.

Clearly, Maryland should reject an activity that generates such a tidal wave of influence-seeking contributions. The money isn't coming from advocates of good government or quality education or better health care. It's coming from gambling interests who see Maryland as another franchise for their sordid, debilitating and often corrupting industry.

Maryland should reject slot machines and any other incursion by gambling. At the same time, it should impose a broad-based prohibition of campaign contributions from organized gambling and its many agents. Such a bill has been filed by Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, and it should be approved quickly.

Some $500,000 of the money already pumped into Maryland went to a campaign fund controlled by one of the leading advocates of slot machines, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. And Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who sees slots as the way out of the $1.8 billion deficit, got $122,000 for his gubernatorial campaign. Both men say there was no quid pro quo -- no agreement to push for slots. The deficit provides considerable cover -- but the amounts of money sent their way show the willingness of big gambling to spend whatever it takes.

And what of the future? What of the inevitable push for casinos? Or slots at the local convenience store? The deficit hole is deeper than slot machine proceeds can fill, so there will be more pressure for more gambling. Won't the big gambling money help with the expansion effort?

Surely it will. So the proposed ban on gambling contributions must pass. And no one should object on constitutional grounds. Campaign contributions have been called a form of speech, but the courts say contributions can be restricted -- when there is a carefully drawn bill and a compelling public interest. In New Jersey and Louisiana, states where gambling flourishes, similarly drafted bans have been upheld. Atty. Gen. J. Joseph Curran Jr. has said Delegate Simmons' bill passes constitutional muster.

Of course, the best option would be to reject the current slot machine proposal, sending a message that Maryland chooses to be free of the rending influence gambling exerts on the social, economic and political fabric.

Without a contributions ban, gambling interests will try to own a working majority of the General Assembly.

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