Split builds over slots

Dynamics change with O'Malley's proposal for vote

General Assembly Special Session

October 27, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

The 50 or so people who found their way to a West Baltimore church for an NAACP forum on legalizing slot machines one night this week held divided views on that issue and were equally passionate in expressing them.

In arguments Maryland legislators are certain to hear during a special session that starts Monday, anti-slots speakers at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forum argued that slots prey on the poor and working people, are a corrupting political influence and, once introduced, will be impossible to contain.

"What slots bring to an area are payday loan places that charge 40 to 50 percent interest, pawnshops, prostitution, crime," warned Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat.

But a contingent of union representatives at the forum wearing yellow "Slots Equal Jobs" T-shirts countered that slots casinos would create thousands of jobs, and that, in any event, Marylanders already cross the borders into West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania to gamble.

"It's a lot of good-paying jobs," said Ernie Greco, head of the Baltimore chapter of the AFL-CIO. "It's jobs for us."

While the arguments might be familiar after five years of slots debates in Annapolis, the dynamics changed yesterday when Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, called for a November 2008 referendum on legalizing slot machine gambling as part of his plan to close Maryland's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

O'Malley's proposal calls for voters to decide whether to allow up to 15,000 machines in the state.

The governor has recommended allowing slots at five locations -- one each in the counties of Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany, and in Baltimore City.

The only racetracks covered by the plan would be Laurel Park in Anne Arundel and Ocean Downs in Worcester.

The proposed Baltimore site would be within a half-mile of Interstate 95 and Route 295, and not within a quarter-mile of residential property. That means that slots would not be placed at Pimlico Race Course.

The legislation requires a three-fifths' vote but would seem to have a good chance at passage since Democrats hold majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, and polls suggest broad public support for legalizing the devices.

Outspoken slots opponents such as state Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, conceded before yesterday's announcement that they face a tougher fight than in past years, when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was the chief backer of slots.

"This year, the devil really is at the door," Franchot told a group of African-American ministers and other slots opponents at an anti-slots rally yesterday at Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. "The other side has never been stronger."

But, he said, opponents have found a way each year to keep slots out, despite conventional wisdom that their legalization was inevitable.

"This is not a done deal," he said.

And ballot measures to allow slot machines or casinos often fail, experts have said.

Opponents have been working in recent days to mount organized opposition to slots in the special session; supporters, including horse racing interests, labor unions and others are more quietly organizing their own effort behind the scenes to help get a slots bill passed.

"I expect there will be a large number of people in Annapolis [on] Monday evening, and union members will certainly be part of that," said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO.

The Maryland Jockey Club, for example, plans to cancel live racing this Friday to allow employees, horsemen and racing fans to rally in Annapolis in support of bringing slot machines to Maryland.

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, chairman of a committee on slot machines and casino gambling for the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore and Vicinity, vowed to wage an equally aggressive fight against slots.

"Gambling is a menace to society, and make no mistake about it: If slot machine gambling is legalized in Maryland, casinos will soon follow," Perkins said. "This would be deadly to the best interest of the moral, social, economic and spiritual life of any community, and it is destructive of good government."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, said that polls show there is "broad, statewide support" for a slots program to help solve the state's budget problems.

"Good people can disagree on this issue," Abbruzzese said. "The governor respects their [opponents'] position, and he has a different position."

O'Malley's election has altered the political dynamics of the slots debate in one respect: Republicans who lined up behind Ehrlich's slots proposals aren't automatic votes in favor of an O'Malley slots plan.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, minority whip in the House of Delegates, said O'Malley is trying to use a slots referendum bill as a way to "sugar-coat" and get passed his proposed income, sales and other tax increases.

Shank said Republicans aren't going to vote in special session for "a bill that will enable O'Malley to raise taxes and would be bad slots legislation."

And while likely to lose Republican support for slots, O'Malley could find it hard to convince fellow Democrats who opposed slots under Ehrlich to support them.

Anderson said residents of his East Baltimore district are solidly against slots.

"We don't need to import any problems," he said.greg.garland@baltsun.com

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