Pull the plug on slots

March 07, 2003

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s revised slot machine legislation, belatedly unveiled Wednesday night, is worse than his first effort in almost every respect. It offers less for education, less for budget balancing - and less for racing, which it purports to be rescuing.

How it might attract more votes in the General Assembly is a mystery: The governor has asked the Assembly to join him in enriching racetrack owners at the expense of schoolchildren.

At every step of a notably clumsy process, the call for a year's study of slots has seemed the wiser course. Mr. Ehrlich initially proposed to reserve 64 percent of his new gambling revenue for classroom spending. The revision redirects $325 million of that share to the track owners.

The makeover hardly seems a good one for the governor, himself.

He needed cash quickly for budget-balancing purposes, so Mr. Ehrlich hoped to sell slots operating licenses to the track owners for $350 million up front - a plan he has now cut back to $120 million. That concession means he and the Assembly would have to find another $230 million in layoffs or program cuts to balance his budget.

The prospect of having to find so much more savings - even with slots - should stimulate more interest in raising taxes. That approach has always been the more healthy and responsible one.

After his first slots plan hit rough water in Annapolis, the governor's supporters on both sides of the aisle urged patience. But patience has its limit. The short- and long-term financial health of the state will be in further jeopardy if responsible heads can't agree soon on a revenue package that does not depend upon the good will - or the enrichment - of gambling interests.

This revision proves the Ehrlich slots bill cannot be tweaked into good policy. It should be set aside for a summer study and consideration next year - if ever.

The governor is a battler determined, no doubt, to have his way - and that can be an admirable quality, if not overplayed. He has indicated some flexibility in his no-new-taxes pledge, which is a hopeful sign. But this new bill tells Assembly leaders they must find a sound alternative from among the many tax initiatives now pending in various committees.

Even if slot machines were ever to bring fiscal salvation to the state of Maryland, the proposal on the table now would not be the vehicle for doing it.

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