`Lipstick on a pig'

February 24, 2005

THE SPEAKER of the House of Delegates, Michael E. Busch, should be widely praised -- not tarred -- for having so far blocked the arrival of slots in Maryland. But the House now could hold its first floor vote on slots as early as today, a vote that's about political expediency -- not what's best for all Marylanders.

The speaker could no longer keep his finger in the dike. Mr. Busch, having beaten the Senate president and governor the last two years, finally was boxed in to allowing a bill out of a House committee yesterday. If that passes the House -- and the vote could be close -- it won't be because many delegates view slots as a greater good, but because many fear a political cost in opposing this juggernaut.

The House bill is better than the slots bill passed by the Senate. It calls for fewer machines and slots barns, and it doesn't automatically enrich wealthy track owners. But it is the equivalent of putting, as one legislator quipped, "lipstick on a pig":

Recall that slots were to raise money to heal the state's structural budget deficit. Unless Maryland's economy far outperforms projections, that gap will exceed $1 billion by 2008. The House bill wouldn't raise anything close to that, and much of its revenue is earmarked for school construction, not operations. Moreover, at this juncture, neither the House nor the Senate bill would raise money fast enough to prevent more budget cuts -- and the need for tax increases.

To pass, some delegates who would never dream of slots in their jurisdictions -- and have worked to keep their turf free from the slots threat -- would have to OK parlors in other Marylanders' backyards. Family-friendly Ocean City is out. Guess that means this bill's sites -- Rocky Gap State Park and Anne Arundel, Frederick and Harford counties -- aren't family-friendly?

This is a vote on Maryland's future. Pennsylvania last year approved slots: Even before the machines arrive there, licenses are being flipped for vast sums, every week brings new signs of shady dealings, and there is growing skepticism that slots will bring promised tax relief. By contrast, Virginia last year opted for a bipartisan tax hike, one that will finance an ambitious roads plan for its high-tech Washington suburbs. Maryland's own high-tech leader, Montgomery County, is right to see no role for slots in its economy, and Maryland's future ought to look a lot more like Montgomery's than Pennsylvania's.

Some delegates may not like the House bill but may vote for it anyway, to get the issue off their backs and into a Senate-House conference committee, where slots supporters hope they can steamroll Mr. Busch. But that opens the way for unintended consequences. Anne Arundel, for example, is in the House bill presumably to allow slots at the Laurel track. But what if, say, a major shopping destination -- such as Arundel Mills -- were to somehow snag a slots license? Think about that the next time your teens ask to spend the day at the mall.

Indeed, slots would not make Maryland a better place for children, and that's just one of the very certain costs greatly undercutting its promised revenues. No state has used slots to achieve financial stability and improved schools. A vote for this House bill may remove some delegates from the political fire, but it will not better Maryland.

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