April 13, 2004

THE DRIVE TO legalize slot machines in Maryland finally died yesterday, at least for this year, with final-day House committee votes killing both the governor's slots plan and the Senate's version. With apologies to T. S. Eliot, slots ended "not with a bang but a whimper."

For anti-slots forces in Annapolis, defeating Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and a formidable cast of well-heeled slots proponents for the second year in a row was akin to "repealing the laws of gravity," proclaimed a fervent opponent, Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.

But don't bet against gravity: By next year's legislative session, the push for slots will almost certainly be resurrected. Given that, let's consider -- while the experience is still fresh -- what Marylanders by now should have learned about slots:

The slots issue swamps the political process, making it much more difficult to debate and solve Maryland's fundamental financial problems.

By themselves, slots are a false promise; the machines won't provide enough revenue to heal Maryland's long-term structural deficit.

If slots get a foot in the door, they inevitably would quickly expand. Just look at the 50 percent increase in parlors in Mr. Ehrlich's plans from last year to this.

Slots are a vehicle for private greed. The worst infighting this session was among all the various interests lining up to be handed a cut in the potential action.

Slots would drain those living within 35 miles of parlors the most, thereby concentrating the machines' negative consequences near wherever they'd be put.

If slots are legalized, they most likely would be placed in lower-income communities that don't have the political clout to protect themselves from the damage.

As a corollary, many politicians pushing for slots the hardest would never accept them in their own communities.

Given that reality, there's a lot of reason to be skeptical about Gov. Ehrlich's claim that his election was tantamount to a statewide mandate for slots.

That was of course the beauty of House Speaker Michael E. Busch's own slots plan that boiled down to six sites, many in Republican areas that supported the governor, and perhaps tied to a statewide referendum in which voters could only approve slots in Maryland if they're willing to accept them in their communities.

Notice how that struck fear in the hearts of many slots backers.

If slots raises its ugly head again, Marylanders should think about this very hypocritical NIMBY-ism: Many slots backers believe it's OK to stick the machines in your neighborhood, but not theirs. With slots, not-in-my-backyard ought to apply to the whole state.

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