Fallujah on the Severn?

February 27, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

THE HOUSE OF Delegates has joined the state Senate in approving a slot machine gambling bill, but slots aren't a done deal yet. If they do get final approval, says Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, Maryland will change in dramatic ways:

If it hasn't already, the gambling industry will buy the General Assembly.

Greased by generous campaign contributions - and the state's new dependence on slots revenue - the machines will slide into "every nook and cranny" of Maryland.

The so-called culture of corruption in Annapolis will look quaint when the gamblers get finished.

Making his own small effort in opposition, Mr. Simmons offered a bill that would have prohibited gambling industry campaign contributions, as several other states have done. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to consider petitions challenging these laws, though the court has defined contributions as speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. A contributions ban is permissible if there is a "compelling state interest." The takeover of government by some special interest, such as gambling, might qualify.

The Montgomery County delegate's concerns, in other words, are not the delusion of some crank. They're recognized by the high court and demonstrated in the experience of other states.

He spoke last week with some nervous desperation. Many other defenders of the land of pleasant living were folding. Show them the money. And get the issue "off the table." What they're doing is getting the state's welfare off the table, scuttling the idea that Marylanders should show their commitment to public education and the like by taxing themselves to pay for it - not by afflicting their neighbors with mortgage-risking addictions.

The vote for slots was driven also by fear. Democratic leaders fear opposing slots will deliver many assembly seats to Republicans and guarantee Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a second term.

Some of these votes may be purchased in whatever bill is ultimately passed. The price: a piece of the slots action. The bill will put money for public works and the like in districts where votes will come for a school construction project.

The House bill removed slots from some jurisdictions that don't want them. These NIMBY votes are available because their constituents won't have to worry around a slots parlor down the street. They get the money without the addictions and break-ins.

In a way, the buy-a-vote effort instinct got Maryland into the slots quandary. To find votes for the massive Thornton education aid bill, more money was sent to Montgomery County, where the bill was being opposed. Now there's a big-ticket program without money to pay for it.

The architect of passage was House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Having defeated slots for two years, he felt intense pressure to allow a vote, not just in committee, but by the full House. Asked why he was pushing the bill so hard last week, he said, "Because it's a democracy."

Some of his delegates believe they must have a chance to vote, yes or no, to satisfy campaign promises and to hold off challenges from those who will charge them with ignoring the free slots money.

Speaker Busch remains an opponent of the initiative. And he may still have cards to play - the House bill has provisions that the Senate and the governor will have trouble accepting. And, risking the obstructionist tag again, Mr. Busch says he will not negotiate on the bill that narrowly passed his chamber Friday.

Slots opponents warned Mr. Busch that just passing a bill to won't be a political winner for the Democrats. It's a lose-lose, they argued: Voters who oppose slots will be angry and vote against them. Proponents of slots won't be won over; they'll ask, "What took you so long?" and vote against you.

W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist and former Navy officer, says a Marine commander put it this way during the siege of Fallujah: "You don't get halfway in and pull out when things get tough. If you try to pull out, you get shot up anyway."

Annapolis is not Fallujah - not yet. The next few skirmishes in the slots war could make it the political equivalent.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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