Conscientious objectors

February 05, 2004

A RELATIVELY small band of State House slots opponents rallied yesterday, standing up to the gambling juggernaut besieging Annapolis. Roughly two dozen state delegates and senators - joined by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and representatives from the League of Women Voters, the state NAACP and a dozen other church and civic groups - cast themselves as foot soldiers on the front lines of the war to stop Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s drive to legalize these machines.

In declaring that paying for schools with slots revenue is poor public policy - both economically and socially - these politicians are conscientious objectors. Their message deserves the attention of Marylanders concerned about this state's future.

To that end, they capped their show by placing a call they said would unleash 1.6 million e-mails to Maryland residents, asking each to authorize faxed letters of opposition under their names to 200 state officials (for $10). They hoped to generate 2 million faxes, inundating state political offices.

That annoying (and perhaps ineffective) guerrilla tactic may be excused given the resources arrayed on the other side. During the last legislative session, lobbyists picked up $2.5 million from gambling interests. The pro-slots state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller, is under FBI investigation after a national political action committee that he heads received $225,000 in donations from the gambling industry in 2002 and early 2003; even with that probe under way, that same PAC took in another $175,000 from the industry in the last half of 2003.

And a study by Common Cause/Maryland to be released today shows slots backers last fall were pouring money into the legislature. With slots objectors yesterday vowing to reverse the state Senate's approval last year of a slots bill and hoping to prevent one from even reaching the floor in the House, more such money politics is certain.

In the face of that, legislators who gathered yesterday are seeking to shift the terms of the debate even as it returns to the Assembly - from the details of how best to accommodate the machines to the fundamental issue of whether they're even right for Maryland. "What you see here today is the shared anger and frustration of people who think the debate is all wrong," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"I am upset that we're spending more time considering the needs of racetrack owners than of the working families who can no longer afford to attend Maryland colleges and universities," he said. "I am appalled that, if Governor Ehrlich had his way, a child in Maryland would be going to school on the very same slot machines that caused her father to lose the house or made her mother steal from work."

The conscientious objectors who rallied yesterday in Annapolis against the well-funded campaign to legalize slots here believe many other Marylanders share their anger and frustration. Their display was a warning that the time to show that is now.

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