Leap of logic

October 05, 2004

SHILLING FOR SLOTS, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. journeyed to a big Cecil County horse farm last week and offered a breathtaking leap of logic: Marylanders concerned about controlling sprawl should support legalizing slot machines.

We suspect that, after back-to-back defeats of slots bills in the state legislature, the governor may be running out of good arguments for slots, but this gem is simply too much of a stretch to swallow.

There is only one good reason for slots - to raise state revenue - and even that is deeply offset when you take into account the overblown projections of largesse, slots' largely unaccounted-for social costs, and the likelihood of a costly race to the bottom with neighboring gambling states.

Moreover, for this governor to suggest a meaningful slots-sprawl connection is particularly galling because when it comes to protecting rural landscapes to fight sprawl, he lacks credibility.

Under Mr. Ehrlich, state officials have turned away from Maryland's nation-leading efforts to preserve rural land. They also have been lukewarm toward expanding mass transit while moving energetically on such sprawl-inducing road projects as widening Route 32 in Howard County.

Ehrlich administration officials still regularly criticize the growth-management focus of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who used state funds to protect about 250,000 acres during his two terms. Since Mr. Ehrlich took over in the middle of the 2002 fiscal year, state appropriations for such land purchases have fallen by about 75 percent, from $156 million to $42 million this fiscal year.

Just last week, it was reported that the state is negotiating to sell at cost an 836-acre tract of St. Mary's County forest that it acquired only a year ago with land preservation funds - a potential sale that the legislature's top budget analyst says doesn't even make financial sense.

To be fair, there's some basis, however tenuous, for the governor's slots-sprawl tie. Slots could result in bigger racing purses, which in turn would help the state's horse farms stay afloat. But the majority of the state's 20,200 horse farms are related to recreation, not racing. If racing is deemed so important to Maryland that larger state subsidies of purses are in order, then track owners should first come up with a comprehensive plan for reviving their industry - something they've failed to do while lobbying hard for slots franchise hand-outs.

In the meantime, don't ask Marylanders to view slots as a sprawl-fighter. It muddies the already murky waters of the slots debate. And it's another sign of the less than full interest of Mr. Ehrlich in solving the very real and pressing problem of sprawl.

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