Slot machine opponents brace for fight with state leaders

May 25, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

Members of a Maryland coalition against slot machine gambling are girding themselves for their toughest fight yet - a potential battle with Democratic state leaders weighing all solutions to the state's looming $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Joined by their highest-ranking advocate, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Stop Slots Maryland advocates gathered at an Annapolis-area church yesterday to resume their push to block gambling. Leaders said they were bankrupt and that supporters had scattered, but that they would turn to religious groups across the state, and even Republican lawmakers, for help.

"Today let's resolve to redouble our efforts," Franchot told a group of two dozen gathered in the basement of a Calvary United Methodist Church. "Let's end this debate over expanded gambling once and for all."

With Gov. Martin O'Malley advocating a limited slots proposal and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller a staunch proponent of a broader plan, anti-gambling activists are in for a "David and Goliath" battle, said Aaron Meisner, a longtime Stop Slots leader.

Meisner said strong slots supporters, prime among them former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., were "returned to the private sector" after the 2006 elections. He said lawmakers should take heed as they consider whether slots should be part of a broad revenue package that could include gasoline, sales or income tax increases.

"I think the people of Maryland really spoke on this issue," Meisner said.

O'Malley said last week that without a measured slots proposal, the Preakness would be lost. Fellow Democrat Miller has made a similar case, saying that slots would help the state preserve valued horse country and a precious state tradition. The Senate president has maintained - though Franchot and others have disputed his calculations - that slots could raise $800 million annually.

"If you want to solve the deficit in 2012, pass slots," W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for slots opponents, said yesterday. "The horse racing industry cannot be saved. It makes boxing look functional. It's the most dysfunctional sport there is. ... Why are we trying to save an industry that has no interest in saving themselves?"

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who has firmly opposed slot machine gambling, remains the legislative wild card. Given the state's fiscal crisis, Busch has said of late that he is keeping an open mind.

Carter called yesterday's meeting "spring training" for the anti-gambling advocates. He said the group should target Prince George's County, in particular, for support and advocated that churches conduct "stop slots sermon Sundays."

He and Meisner said they will lobby Republicans, in the Senate specifically, who could be swayed by the moral argument against gambling. They will also plead with the senators to return to their small-government roots.

"We're in for the toughest fight of our lives," Franchot said. "I consider Governor O'Malley a friend and an ally, but on this important issue of expanding gambling in Maryland, we don't see eye to eye."

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