College heads find it risky to root for slots

Dilemma: The one-armed bandits might help protect the higher education budget, but university presidents just can't bring themselves to publicly endorse gambling.

March 16, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

For Maryland's top educators, the current budget crisis presents a dilemma unlike any they have ever faced. Call it Gambling 101.

Few public officials stand to benefit as much from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan for 11,500 slot machines at four racetracks as the leaders of the state's kindergarten-to-grade-12 schools and its colleges and universities.

Under the plan, nearly half of slots revenues would go toward the state's commitment to the Thornton Commission's recommendations for K-12 funding. Meanwhile, slots would take budget pressure off the state's colleges, which are facing another $36 million in cuts if lawmakers can't find new revenue.

But it's painfully awkward for education leaders to root for slots - for people charged with enriching the minds of Maryland's young to boost an activity that consists of dropping coins into a machine for hours on end (and usually losing). On the spectrum of human endeavors, playing slots is pretty much at the opposite end from the research and learning that educators see themselves furthering.

Thus the dilemma: To support slots or not?

How K-12 and university leaders approach this question could affect the slots debate, for the word of educators carries weight with many lawmakers. The approaches have been sharply split.

On the one hand, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is openly lobbying for slots. "If not this, what? We cannot continue to provide high-quality education without the infusion of this money," Grasmick told lawmakers in an unprecedented appearance by a superintendent on behalf of a revenue bill.

In contrast with this open support is the cautious, veiled approach adopted by the state's college presidents. At a recent State House news conference, leaders of the University of Maryland, College Park, the Johns Hopkins University and other schools urged the General Assembly to pass Ehrlich's allocations for higher education.

But when asked whether that meant they backed slots - the centerpiece of Ehrlich's budget and the reason why he's not demanding deeper cuts to colleges - the presidents put on their best poker faces. No, they said, they weren't taking a stance on slots; they were simply saying they didn't want further reductions, and leaving it up to legislators to find the money. "We don't see it as our role to identify to the state how it collects revenue," said University System Chancellor William E. Kirwan.

Maryland's educators aren't the first to face this quandary. In many states, lottery or slots proceeds are earmarked for education, thereby putting school officials in a bind.

"It's definitely difficult to advocate [for education] without taking a position" on slots, said Chris Maher, education director for Maryland's Advocates for Children and Youth. "It does put people in a tough position."

Questioning Grasmick

Both approaches - Grasmick's explicit lobbying and the university leaders' hedging - have come in for criticism. Some question the propriety of the state schools superintendent backing gambling and endorsing Ehrlich's claim that, without slots, the Thornton commitment can't be met.

"[She] is supposed to be a leader. She should say, whether we have slots or not, we should adequately fund the schools," said John A. Micklos, a retired Baltimore County teacher.

Grasmick says she decided to fight for slots because it is the leading option for a major new source of revenue. "If [the top option] were taxes, I'd be standing there and saying I support that," she said. "Do I want our kids to profit from a new revenue source if it becomes reality? I have to be honest and say yes, I do."

As for the moral questions about slots, she noted that the state has long had a lottery. "These are adult choices. I'm not willing to be holier than thou," she said. "I want kids to get an education. Then they can make their own decisions" on gambling.

Others see as disingenuous the university leaders' refusal to support slots explicitly, while arguing against cuts. After all, additional reductions are being contemplated only because many lawmakers oppose slots and are seeking other ways to balance the books.

By arguing against further cuts, aren't college presidents implicitly backing slots? And if so, why don't they come out and say so?

During revenue debates, said former system regent Edwin S. Crawford, "The presidents are for the most part a timid lot when it comes to putting their heads out."

This caution is understandable, he added, because the presidents fear that lawmakers who oppose slots could punish advocacy of Ehrlich's plan by further slashing college funding. Grasmick is less vulnerable, because the state is constitutionally required to fund an adequate K-12 education, a protection that higher education lacks.

College presidents say they are also constrained from pushing slots by their roles as campus leaders. Taking sides might irk faculty or staff who disagree.

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