The starting gate

September 27, 2007

Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement that he intends to push for 9,500 slot machines to help solve Maryland's $1.7 billion budget deficit and revive horse racing was noteworthy in at least one respect: It was woefully short on specifics. Whether one is for or against slots, it's hard to draw many conclusions from the governor's remarks - aside from the fact that he intends to model his bill after legislation narrowly approved by the House of Delegates in 2005.

That lack of detail is itself revealing. It demonstrates that despite the presence of a Democrat on the second floor of the State House, the House and Senate are no closer to consensus on the issue than they were when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor.

The 53-page measure approved by the House two years ago had relatively tight controls over machines and the revenue they produced. The result: Track owners wouldn't reap the financial windfall that previous proposals likely would have delivered to them. The Senate summarily rejected the bill. It's hard to believe the chambers' irreconcilable positions have greatly changed.

But what is troubling about the governor's noncommittal commitment is that the devil with slots is always in the details. How much track owners stand to gain personally from their introduction is just one of these niggling issues. Location is just as dicey. The House bill assigned slots facilities to Western Maryland as well as Frederick, Harford and Anne Arundel counties (with the last one presumably an opportunity for Laurel Park).

If Mr. O'Malley is serious about "recapturing" the money Marylanders are gambling at places such as Wilmington's Delaware Park or Charles Town in West Virginia, such a regional approach makes sense. But Frederick and Harford County legislators may see things differently - even voters who support the concept of slots rarely, if ever, want them in their own backyards.

And there is a host of other issues - including guarding against gambling-related political corruption, addressing the concerns of affected local businesses and ameliorating the potential social costs in terms of addiction, crime and poverty.

The General Assembly has been down this road before. Legalizing slot machines is not just some political game, it's a difficult and complex issue. If Mr. O'Malley wants to join the fray, he's going to have to produce a lot more specifics - and address some very legitimate concerns. At the moment, there's just not much to judge.

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