The slots fallacy

March 04, 2004

FINALLY, the central fallacy of the governor's plan to legalize slots takes center stage in Annapolis: These machines won't raise enough money to cure Maryland's long-term structural budget deficit. Not even the gambling industry's many lobbyists make that claim.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House committee that will consider the slots bill passed last week by the Senate, underscored that truth this week by bluntly declaring, "We're not going to do slots unless we have taxes, too" - at least $500 million a year in new taxes, to be more precise.

That was, of course, a political dagger aimed at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose mantra has been "No new taxes." And it was an encouraging sign of continuing House support for Speaker Michael E. Busch, who did all Marylanders a favor last year by derailing the governor's drive for slots and who remains the only state leader responsibly talking about the need for a comprehensive solution to Maryland's fiscal problems.

After a minimal and somewhat disgraceful Senate debate that focused primarily on divvying up the slots spoils among private interests, Delegate Hixson's remarks were not only a breath of fresh air, they also provided a much-needed dose of reality. Even if slots bring the state $900 million a year in new revenues - and legislative analysts predict it could be considerably less - forecasts of annual state budget deficits rise to about $1.8 billion within a couple of years and stay there for the foreseeable future.

Think about that when the slots hucksters try to cast the debate in terms of slots or taxes. One way or another, Marylanders' taxes - or fees, as Mr. Ehrlich prefers to describe them - are going to have to go up. Slots would dent that, but at an unacceptably high price.

That's the flip side of the slots fallacy. As the General Assembly grapples with a slots plan for the second consecutive year, have you noticed that rare is the Maryland community clamoring to host these parlors?

Let's see: Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties had themselves written into the Senate bill as slots-free zones; Ocean City and Dorchester County rejected slots; and this week, the Prince George's County executive pressed his area's state representatives to do the same. Community opposition has long been evident in Allegany County, and Baltimore City's welcome - particularly at the Inner Harbor - is lukewarm. No one's even talked about putting them in Southern Maryland or Montgomery County. So that more or less leaves Cecil County, where officials say they'll accept slots only if they get control over a big enough cut of the revenue.

Note to Cecil: Get that nailed down. This pig in a poke isn't going to solve the state's money woes - and it's got great potential to worsen yours. Pay attention to the reality checks now promised to be raised by the House - and to the fallacies still being promoted from the governor's office, where top aide Paul E. Schurick this week threatened to "call the whole thing off" if the House ties taxes to slots. We can only hope.

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