As a newly released poll suggests most Marylanders favor legalizing slot machines but want the state to control them, House Speaker Michael E. Busch warned yesterday that the state shouldn't count on the unpredictable proceeds of any expanded gambling to balance its budget or fund essential services.
"Whatever gaming money comes in ought to be talked about as a supplemental revenue source rather than your stable, structural revenue source," he said.
Busch's stance conflicts with that of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who wants to use slots money to pay expenses of state government.
A survey by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies of Annapolis, released yesterday, found 56 percent in favor of legalizing slot machines and 34 percent opposed.
If the devices were to be made legal in Maryland, 62 percent said the state "should retain financial control of any slot machine facilities and hire experts in the field to manage them."
Eleven percent of those polled said the state should allow the horse racing industry to control slots facilities and give the state a percentage of the profits. Eight percent said they favor auctioning slots licenses to the highest bidder.
The poll also found that a plurality of those surveyed did not believe slots should be located exclusively at racetracks. Forty-eight percent said they should not be at tracks only. Thirty-four percent said slots should be only at tracks and 14 percent gave no opinion.
Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, cautioned against reading too much into the poll results. He said people favor other sites in the abstract, but not when specific alternatives are identified.
"The support for having them at locations other than tracks is a mile wide and an inch deep because nobody has any idea where those would be," Capps said.
The survey results suggest that the view of most Marylanders on gambling expansion is closer to that of Busch than Ehrlich.
Busch has suggested exploring the idea of slots emporiums owned and controlled by the state as an alternative to Ehrlich's failed proposal this year to put slots at four racetrack sites.
"I think this shows people trust the state to run slots more than they trust the racing industry or gambling interests to do it," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.
He said the poll findings also may be "reflecting studies that show state-controlled slots would generate more revenue" than other options.
Busch, the leading opponent of a racetrack monopoly on slots, said he feels vindicated by the poll results.
"While this poll reflects the fact that a majority of Marylanders want some kind of expansion of gaming, they want that expansion to be controlled by the state of Maryland and to have the greatest profitability and consumer protections," he said.
Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the governor had proposed this year a program in which the state controlled the finances.
He said Ehrlich wanted slots tied to a central computer at the Maryland State Lottery, similar to the way Keno games are controlled.
The Gonzales telephone poll of 831 registered Maryland voters was done between Oct. 20 and Sunday, and the margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
The questions on slots were done independently as part of a statewide poll on unrelated issues, according to Patrick Gonzales of the firm.