Slots entitlements

August 18, 2004

WHY DOES Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. want to legalize slots?

In the beginning, you'll recall, he stressed slots to aid the state's ailing horse racing industry.

Then he started emphasizing slots as the cure for Maryland's long-term structural deficit caused largely by mandated increases in state education funding. So it became slots for schools.

Now it seems clear that the governor has another at least equally important priority in seeking to bring the machines to Maryland: To hand out licenses worth perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars each to a few powerful and wealthy players who control the state's racetracks.

That's starkly evident in Mr. Ehrlich's outright rejection Monday of a statewide referendum on legalizing slots.

A new poll released this week shows that the vast preponderance of Marylanders -- particularly those who favor slots -- want just such a vote.

And House Speaker Michael E. Busch offered the governor that option -- a referendum on a House plan calling for state ownership of the slots parlors.

We're firmly opposed to legalizing slots; the machines are a poor way to fund essential state services and their social costs cut deeply into their fiscal benefits. But if slots come to Maryland, the House plan is the best to date. It would provide subsidies to racing and money for schools while retaining direct state control of this substantial revenue stream. Moreover, a statewide referendum would embed limits on the machines in the state constitution, making it more difficult to later cave in to the inevitable pressures to expand the gambling.

In rejecting a slots vote, Mr. Ehrlich stood logic on its head by absurdly claiming that asking Marylanders to vote on slots would somehow be an undemocratic insult to the "collective wisdom" behind the slots plan passed by the state Senate in the last legislative session. That track-based plan was bludgeoned into place by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on behalf of track owners.

Make no mistake, the Senate plan essentially hands out huge state entitlements -- licenses perhaps worth several hundred million dollars each. Doubt that? Half-ownership of a potential slots license near Philadelphia just changed hands for about $250 million.

Even so, Mr. Busch offered to negotiate the details of a slots plan to be put to a vote, possibly opening the way for some track ownership.

But voters, if they had any common sense, would reject any plan containing lucrative giveaways to track owners Joseph A. De Francis and William Rickman Jr. and maybe even the family of Peter G. Angelos, if they close their deal for Rosecroft Raceway.

Given that, it's not surprising that Mr. Ehrlich would reject a vote and opt for the political uncertainties of continuing to try to break the two-year legislative standoff over slots -- particularly if his goal is to not just bring slots to Maryland, but to make sure that a chosen few are enriched by handing them big cuts of the action.

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