Md. voters support slot machines, lay blame with Busch

57 percent want to expand gambling, survey shows

House speaker unfazed by poll

October 30, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A solid majority of Maryland voters want to legalize slot machines, and most of those who favor expanded gambling think the Democratic leader of the House of Delegates is to blame for the state not having it.

In a poll conducted for The Sun by the Washington office of Ipsos-Public Affairs, 57 percent of respondents said they favor legalizing slots and 41 percent said they oppose them. The support cuts across ideological lines. Most liberals, moderates and conservatives favor slots - and don't waver when asked if they would accept the machines in their city or county.

Greg Massoni, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor, based on his own polling, believes that support for slots is even stronger. He said that the governor hasn't decided whether to submit a bill in the next legislative session but that he will "play a central role" in getting a proposal enacted. "The governor has made it clear. He's got a hard head, and he's not giving up," Massoni said.

The Sun poll also appears to confirm some Democrats' fears that Ehrlich will win political points by blaming House Speaker Michael E. Busch for blocking slot machines. Of those who support slots, 57 percent agreed that Busch was to blame for being an "obstructionist opponent" to expanded gambling, while only a quarter thought Ehrlich failed to effectively advocate for it.

"The public wants people to reach across the aisle and work with each other," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports slots and has said Busch's opposition is hurting Democrats.

"Our continued inability to pass something similar to the governor's plan, which really was a fine plan, does not reflect well on the General Assembly," Miller said.

`Slots at any cost'

Busch was unfazed by the poll's results. He said he doesn't oppose gambling on moral grounds but believes it shouldn't be the basis for the state's budget. When people consider the details of a specific slots plan and the possibility that special interests would be enriched by it, their support diminishes, he said.

"I think the ones who see me as an obstructionist wanted slots at any cost. This other 43 percent understand it wasn't a well laid-out plan," Busch said.

Besides, he added, "The people who don't want slots probably appreciate me being an obstructionist."

The poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday, surveyed 602 registered voters and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

In a smaller sample of respondents judged to be likely voters, support for slots was slightly weaker, with 53 percent favoring them and 44 percent opposing. The margin of error for likely voters is 4.6 percent.

Debra Caperna, 41, an office manager from Dundalk who participated in the poll, said she plays the slots occasionally and would do so more often if they were legal in Maryland. She echoed one of Ehrlich's most frequent arguments for slots: that Marylanders are gambling already, so it would be better to allow it here and keep the revenue in the state for schools and other programs.

Political wrangling

She said she used to follow the debate closely but got tired of the wrangling between Ehrlich and Busch, whom she blames for the failure of the governor's slots initiatives.

"I think it's more of a game between the people. It's more of a political thing than looking out for the best interests of what people want," Caperna said.

After a Labor Day meeting between Ehrlich, Busch and Miller, the three briefly appeared ready to call a special session of the legislature to put a constitutional amendment on slot machines on the November ballot.

But within two days, the deal was dead, largely killed by delegates from Prince George's County and Baltimore who objected to plans that would have put two slots parlors in each of those jurisdictions.

Pros and cons

Joseph Williams, 46, a part-time child care worker from Baltimore, said having slots in the city would not bother him. He said that slots at Pimlico Race Course could help spruce up the Park Heights area and that gambling in the Inner Harbor would give a major boost to downtown.

"When tourists come into town, it gives them something else to do," he said. "In all the other states where they have slots, people take bus trips up there. It would be the same way here."

Those buses go past Elkton on their way to Delaware and Atlantic City, N.J., and Linda Looney, a 53-year-old homemaker who lives there, said she has seen the negative effects of slot machines.

"You can't stop people from using them," she said. "I've seen people lose everything they have."

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