A bad bet

November 12, 2006

As he assembles his transition team, Martin O'Malley has just two months to plan his agenda for the coming General Assembly session. Here's something that shouldn't be included: Slot machines. If the past four years have demonstrated anything, it's the problematic nature of forcing slots on a legislature with, at best, ambivalent feelings on the topic. Looking for support in the House of Delegates is tantamount to getting involved in a land war in Asia - messy and unwinnable.

Mr. O'Malley has said he could support a limited number of slot machines at Maryland racetracks, but the issue was hardly a centerpiece of his campaign. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is certain to push for them, but there's no groundswell of public support for slots to back him up.

Proponents will argue that slots could enrich Maryland's struggling racing industry. This is probably true (at least for track owners), but the bigger question is, at what cost? They breed crime, political corruption, gambling addictions and other social ills, cause harm to competing restaurants and retailers, and represent a kind of regressive tax on the poor and middle class.

The other rationale is that slots would reap a bonanza for the state treasury. But such an argument requires a serious uptick in gambling - thousands, if not tens of thousands, of machines. And with slots-happy West Virginia and Delaware vying to put each other out of business (and looking toward table games in the future), how far would Maryland have to go to compete? Pennsylvania is planning 14 casinos. Do we hear 15? Twenty? Fifty?

House Speaker Michael E. Busch doesn't like slots, and his principled stand these last four years has only raised his stature in the Democratic caucus. Mr. Miller can stomp and shout all he wants, but the repeated failure of slots legislation didn't hurt his party one bit in the last election. Why would Mr. Busch's position change now?

But this impasse doesn't mean racing should be abandoned. The sport's historic contributions, its jobs and its significance to the horse industry are too important to be ignored. What's needed is a plan to revive racing that would feature both private investment and public benefit. It will likely require subsidizing track purses, but in return should also ensure the Preakness - and its many benefits - stays in Maryland.

That may be a tall order for any governor, but the political rewards are obvious. After four years of slots gridlock in Annapolis, coming up with a viable plan to help racing - and getting legislative approval for it - would demonstrate that a new era of progress and compromise has truly arrived.

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