Searching for fiscal sanity in the haze

March 23, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

THE ALLURE of more state-sanctioned gambling descends like a patchy spring fog, obscuring vision and concealing dangers.

Our new governor says the General Assembly should legalize slot machines, allowing Marylanders to make "adult decisions."

We won't have desperate losers shooting themselves in parking lots after gambling away the mortgage money. We won't have an outbreak of prostitution. We won't suddenly decide there's no need to pay more taxes because slots heal all deficits, fund all programs and exempt all from taxes. What happened in other states won't happen here.

So, imagining that the promise of slots revenue was the only argument he needed, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. introduced a poorly drafted bill to put Maryland on a par with Delaware and West Virginia. It's only gotten worse since then.

A slots bill got out of a Senate committee last week, but it was hardly the governor's bill by then, so thoroughly had it been rewritten. Though he had said the tracks had to have 43.6 percent of the take, his budget secretary seemed happy when the Senate's bill provided 39 percent. So, did the senators save Marylanders millions by lopping off 4.6 percent of the track owner's bounty - or did they put a fig leaf over the basic giveaway?

Now, more than ever, it's Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's bill. Should we notice that a national campaign committee he controls enjoyed more than $500,000 in gambling contributions last year?

At this point, one cannot even be certain of the bill's purpose: Are we A) saving the racing industry, B) enriching the already rich track owners, C) erasing the budget deficit, or D) avoiding another embarrassing defeat for the governor?

Best bet? B.

The Senate bill asks for $5 million in earnest money from the tracks to cement Maryland's commitment to slots into law. That would put the camel's undeserving snout way under the tent flap - and it might inoculate slots from an up-or-down vote by the people. Courts have ruled that money appropriations can't be taken to referendum.

Meanwhile, even as Maryland prepares to confer millions on the track owners, slots make salesmen of almost everyone because almost everyone wants a piece of the action: Every state department, every governmental program, every state employee worries that, without slots, they'll see trouble.

No less a worthy than state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says she's for slots. Where's the money to come from otherwise? she asked. Well, there's the income tax, the sales tax, a proposed surcharge on high income Marylanders, the broadening of the sales tax base to cover services, a tax on corporations who figure out how to avoid paying taxes, and so on. Of course, every one of these options carries a political downside made more painful to approach later - by slots. If we have slots, why do we need taxes?

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a business and study group, says it's for slots but only if there are more slots emporia - not just the tracks but other venues. Next to cash machines in shopping malls, perhaps. Imagine the ad campaign: You gotta play to shop!

A recent poll shows Marylanders are increasingly against slots. The same poll shows that Marylanders see slots as the best way to deal with the budget deficit. Same poll suggests black voters are against slots - but a poll taken by a black legislator says the opposite. Fog alert.

So, what will the Assembly do? Dare we ask? Last year, legislators passed the mother of all education legislation - $1.3 billion worth - knowing there was no money to pay the bill. They did that after cutting income taxes by $900 million a year. Now they are asked to vote for slots to deal with the budget deficit they helped create - and they know slots won't fill the gap.

Senators and delegates with a marginal grasp of reality will try to link slots with a real tax increase: one penny on the sales tax would raise $600 million, for example. If that doesn't happen, they believe, they'll never get a tax increase past the new governor. What Mr. Ehrlich apparently wants more than anything is slots.

So, do slots become the leverage for fiscal sanity? Is this what we mean by adult decision-making?

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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