For the first time in recent history, a clear majority of Marylanders favors installing slot machines at racetracks, according to a poll released today.
The results appear to validate one of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s principle policy objectives and his main campaign pledge: that the state should pay for better schools and other programs through expanded gambling instead of higher taxes.
A survey of 829 registered voters by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies found that 57 percent support slots at tracks, while 31 percent oppose the plan.
Those numbers represent a marked shift in public opinion in a short time. The last Gonzales poll, conducted in March during the height of the General Assembly's debate over gambling legalization, found that 47 percent favored slots at tracks, and 45 percent opposed them.
Independent Annapolis-based pollster Patrick E. Gonzales called it the first time in at least 12 years of his polling that more than half of survey respondents call themselves proponents of more gambling.
"It's statistically significant, and striking," Gonzales said.
Conducted from Aug. 13 to Aug. 20, the poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Ehrlich aides said the results show that the governor's anti-tax, smaller-government message is shared by a majority of state residents. Gonzales also found that 57 percent of Marylanders say Ehrlich is doing a good job as governor, with 30 percent disapproving - figures virtually unchanged since March.
"Public support for the governor has increased, and public support for slots has increased, despite constant criticism by some legislators and editorial writers," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director. "That tells me we're on the right track."
Slots support now crosses geographic, gender, racial and partisan lines. Fifty-one percent of Democrats favor slot machines, along with 70 percent of Republicans. Even in the Washington suburbs - which had been a hotbed of opposition - 51 percent of respondents said they backed slots, with 37 percent opposed.
Support among white respondents is 56 percent and 60 percent for blacks; 59 percent of males and 55 percent of females favor slots.
Gonzales said he believes the attitude change is driven by heightened awareness of the state's fiscal problems. As the Thornton law, which requires vastly higher amounts of public school spending, kicks in and health care costs escalate, analysts are projecting that state budget expenses will exceed revenues by more than $1 billion in the near future.
Ehrlich, a Republican, was elected last year promising that revenue from slot machines would help pay for public schools, although critics note that the governor's gambling proposal would fund only a portion of the Thornton formula.
Deficit is issue
The House of Delegates rejected Ehrlich's slot machine plan this year, and Ehrlich has pledged he would balance future budgets through spending cuts - not higher taxes. Last month, he trimmed $208 million from the state's $22 billion budget.
"To me, the budget deficit is becoming more real to people. What will be important from this day forward is how government continues to deal with the deficit, and the specifics attached to any new gambling proposal," Gonzales said.
Worsening deficit figures could drive support higher, he said, while a legalization plan seen as a giveaway to the racing industry or casino interests could reverse the trend.
The survey showed that a plurality of residents - 29 percent - said the looming budget deficit was the most important issue facing the state, with 23 percent naming education.
Debated for years in Maryland, slots legislation has never made it through the legislature, in part because public opinion has been so divided. But if other polls confirm the opinion shift, lawmakers could be more willing to vote yes on a divisive issue.
"Clearly, when you have a number like that, it gives people cover to do something that they may want to do otherwise," said Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-slots groups.
The poll question, however, does not capture the full scope of the gambling debate in Maryland.
Led by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, growing numbers of policy-makers are beginning to consider slots at state-run facilities away from racetracks. Such facilities could attract gamblers now leaving for tracks in Delaware and West Virginia, maximize the income to the state and prevent a small number of track owners from getting disproportionately wealth, proponents say.
General support for slots at tracks could erode in communities where gambling facilities would be located, Carter said, noting evolving concern over Busch's decision to explore whether the state fairgrounds in Timonium should house slot machines.
"It's one thing to say you want slots at racetracks; it's another to say that that is the best location for them," Carter said. "What this says to me is that people want slots, as long as it's not near them."
Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he had not noticed a shift in opinion in the Washington area, despite the survey results.
"The more information people have about the effects of gambling, the less support there is for it," Bronrott said. "Even if it is popular, we as public policy leaders have to take positions that are slightly unpopular - to do what is right in the long run. Slots is a Hail Mary pass that is totally unnecessary."
Poll results also contained good news for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is running for re-election next year. Presented with three options, 53 percent of the respondents said they would vote for her again, while 34 percent said they would consider another candidate and 13 percent said they would vote to replace her with a Republican.
Mikulski demonstrates some crossover appeal: 31 percent of Republicans said they would vote to replace her, while 49 percent of Republicans said they would consider someone else.