Gambling on the future

June 12, 2007

Voters in West Virginia produced a split decision over the weekend when it came to authorizing table games at two of the state's racetracks. The result was good news for Maryland racing: Jefferson County voters decided they didn't want blackjack, poker and the like at the horse racing track at Charles Town, a facility already awash with slot machines.

But the episode also provided a model of how such decisions ought to be made - only with the approval of the communities where gambling venues would be located, that is. Because while Jefferson County voted its proposal down, voters in Ohio County went the other direction and approved table games for a dog racing track in Wheeling by about a 2-to-1 ratio.

As a matter of public policy, slot machines are a bad bet. We think the economic and social costs are too high and that a state as prosperous as Maryland ought to be able to finance its government without them, projected $1.5 billion budget deficit or not. It's particularly problematic when such a highly addictive form of gambling is contemplated in disadvantaged communities.

Of course, the experience in the Mountaineer State also demonstrates that slots are just a step away from full-blown casinos. As states compete, they must raise the stakes. This means either luring visitors with better returns ("looser" slot machines that pay off more) or offering new games of chance.

But at least the West Virginia legislature recognized that local residents ought to have the final say in the matter. The presence of slot machines has too great an impact on a community for the decision to be handled any other way.

There's something of a precedent for this in Maryland. When the General Assembly approved the state lottery - a controversial idea when it was debated 35 years ago - it was on the condition that it be put to voter referendum. It subsequently passed a statewide vote, and the lottery debuted in 1973.

Maryland's slots proponents will likely balk at this and point out that government wouldn't accomplish much if every controversial idea were put to referendum. But authorizing slot machines, whether at racetracks or elsewhere, is hardly in the same category as deciding where to locate prisons or roads that are vital to the public interest. Slots ought not be forced on any Maryland community - particularly if a majority of the local residents (whether in Baltimore or one of the 23 counties) opposes them.

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