Slots balloon

May 07, 2004

SLOTS ARE back, sort of. There was absolutely no reason to believe the drive to legalize them in Maryland was dead - or in Annapolis parlance, dead-dead - after their defeat less than a month ago in the state legislature (for the second year in a row). Still, at this stage, it's hard to know precisely what to think of this week's vague trial balloon about calling a special legislative session this summer to approve a November statewide referendum on slots.

This latest buzz may not go anywhere. For both sides, the potential benefits of a referendum are questionable. And any such vote, particularly one as soon as this fall, could pose enormous practical, political and public-policy problems.

The concept of a statewide vote on slots is not new, having last floated up during the General Assembly's final weekend. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, too, has restarted his fevered shuttle diplomacy of last session's end to bridge the standoff between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

On a Baltimore radio station yesterday, Mr. Ehrlich sounded wary of such talk, let alone holding a special session and putting slots to statewide vote: "I got jacked around," he said of this year's slots defeat, "and it is not going to happen again. Believe me."

Unmentioned, of course, is the governor's vast political victory in losing slots: Without slots for the two years remaining until his re-election bid, Mr. Ehrlich can carry out the national Republican agenda of cuts to government services, all the while hammering state Democrats for killing slots and seeking big tax increases instead.

Perhaps too hopefully, some slots opponents welcome a statewide vote - if it were structured so in voting for the machines, you also would have to vote to allow them in your jurisdiction. They figure if they could pressure suburban NIMBY-ites in that way, slots support would fall apart and they would be killed, really killed.

There may be something to this logic, and - as slots opponents - we think that type of referendum strikes to the core of the issue: Why should those who don't want slots in their neighborhoods be able to stick the machines - and their social costs - in some of the state's less well-off areas? But of course it's likely that Mr. Ehrlich would not buy that electoral gambit. And without that, a simple yes-no vote on a slots plan certainly risks approval, given the deep resources that the gaming industry could throw into a referendum campaign.

Even more risky are the signals Mr. Busch is sending that he'd let a vote go forward without the governor coming up with new sources of revenue to get closer to a comprehensive solution to the state's long-term budget deficit. That may be a savvy political move - in that it would be harder for Mr. Ehrlich to portray the speaker and House Democrats as obstructionists - but it risks the worst of all worlds for Marylanders: The arrival of slots while still having to cut state services to make ends meet.

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