Support for slots down in survey

stem cell funding backed strongly

Also, 75% want legislative role in sales of preserved parkland

April 17, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon and Ivan Penn | Stephanie Desmon and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

The public's appetite for slot machines in Maryland - a centerpiece of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign in 2002 - appears to have peaked, and, after three failed attempts to legalize them, opposition is at its highest point in many years.

Three months ago, before the start of the recently adjourned session of the General Assembly, 56 percent of likely voters surveyed supported bringing slots to the state. In The Sun Poll conducted last week, 47 percent said they wanted slot machine gambling legalized.

"You can't argue there's this extraordinary mandate for slots" anymore, said Keith Haller, president of the Bethesda-based polling company Potomac Inc., which conducted the survey for the newspaper and baltimoresun.com. "The proponents of slots really have not done a good job arguing their case to the broader public."

The poll also found strong support for state funding of embryonic stem cell research and for legislative oversight of the sale of preserved parkland.

Many voters - two in five - said they feel so strongly about slot machines that they would make them something of a litmus test in deciding whether to vote for a gubernatorial or legislative candidate in next year's elections. More than one in five voters said they would oppose a candidate who supported legalizing them.

Brenda Johnson, 59, said slots would be a make-or-break issue for her in a statewide election. The lifelong resident of Prince George's County said she remembers when gambling was allowed in the county decades ago and does not want it to return.

`Bad habits'

"They'll make gamblers out of everybody," said Johnson, a Democrat who took part in the telephone poll. "You get into bad habits. I don't feel we really need it."

W. Minor Carter, an anti-slots lobbyist, said many people like the idea of having slots in Maryland but do not want them in their communities. When Frederick County was considered as a site for slots, that community rose up in opposition.

"Everybody wants slots in the abstract, but they don't want them in their jurisdiction," Carter said.

Robert Wandell, an information security manager who lives in Ellicott City, remains a supporter of Maryland's reaping the benefit of gambling money that is seeping across its borders to Delaware and West Virginia.

"The way I look at it is, if someone is going to play slots, they are going to play slots," said the 45-year-old Republican. "Why not have them here? It is hypocritical of the state to say you can't play slots but you can play a lottery. It's obvious we are not against gambling, so why limit the forms of gambling?"

The two chambers of the legislature passed different bills to legalize slot machines in this year's session, but leaders did not reach a compromise, and Ehrlich watched what he once hoped would be his signature legislation die for a third time.

That public wrangling - and the bills' failure - might have been one of the reasons the General Assembly as a body got such low marks from the public.

Of those polled, 1 percent gave legislators an "excellent" score for how they dealt with the state's problems. One in four gave the legislators positive marks, and seven out of 10 gave them a negative rating.

`Dismal' ratings

"If you were a legislator, you might want to get out of town quickly before the report cards are handed out back home," Haller said, calling the ratings "dismal. ... It's hard to imagine the numbers being worse than that."

Legislators failed to get a bill to the governor's desk that would have provided $23 million in state money for embryonic stem cell research. The bill was opposed by anti-abortion activists and the Maryland Catholic Conference, and Republicans stymied it by threatening a filibuster that would have held up other legislation in the final days of the session.

But, according to the poll, there is better than 2-to-1 support in Maryland for providing the funds, and that support is consistent across the state. Democrats overwhelmingly support the proposal, and Republicans are evenly split.

Dr. Seymour Rubin, an 81-year-old retiree whose specialty was internal medicine, gave the legislature a rating of "fair" this year, primarily because lawmakers didn't follow the leads of New Jersey and California and approve stem cell research funding.

The Baltimore Democrat said he retired from practicing medicine 16 years ago but continues to follow developments in the field and considers stem cell research critically important.

"It's going to help a great many people in overcoming illness," Rubin said. "I think it's a great step forward in medical progress."

Ruth Haworth, a retired factory worker from the Eastern Shore who is a lung cancer survivor, said the state's longtime attitude against new ideas thwarted the stem cell debate.

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