Another losing bet

August 27, 2006

There's plenty on the mind of the average Maryland voter these days - public education, health care, crime, jobs, development and the environment, to name a few real-life areas of concern. There is not a burning desire to bring thousands of slot machines into the state, except within the hearts of those who would directly benefit - and once again, on the second floor of the State House.

Last weekend, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told a gathering of county officials in Ocean City that he would push for a "funding source" to finance school construction over the next four years. He couldn't bring himself to say the words "slot machines." But that's most certainly what he meant.

It appears the governor has not given up on his quest to greatly expand gambling in Maryland, even as his justifications - most notably the Thornton mandate for schools and closing the state budget deficit - have faded away.

So once again, Maryland schoolchildren get to witness their future being held hostage to gambling. The reality of slot machines is that while they may make their owners rich, they cost the public dearly in terms of gambling addiction, broken families, higher crime rates and poverty. Not to mention the opportunities they pose for public corruption, thanks to the steady flow of dollars gambling industry lobbyists pour into state capitals in hopes of reaping humongous contracts.

But here's the real puzzler: Mr. Ehrlich knows what happens when you offer slot machine legislation to the General Assembly. You don't know what kind of bill might emerge - and Mr. Ehrlich willingly admits he has little influence in that arena. The sad reality of the matter is that no community is safe from becoming a potential site of a slots emporium. From Timonium to Frederick to Ocean City, there are plenty of possible locations that ought to send a chill up local residents' spines.

And if school construction is to be his latest justification, Mr. Ehrlich has some explaining to do. Why use slots to build schools if the state has an authentic, multibillion-dollar budget surplus, as his campaign literature claims? If it's to compete with out-of-state "racinos" then the slots parlors should be located near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia state lines - where, incidentally, local residents vehemently oppose them.

Maybe that's why it's not exactly a shocker that the governor's re-election campaign doesn't tout slots. The bigger mystery is why Mr. Ehrlich's opponent, Martin O'Malley, hasn't come out against slot machines (like Mr. Ehrlich, he's not making much mention of them). Maryland doesn't need slot machines, it needs more forthright leadership that can just say no to expanded gambling.

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