Dollars and sense

November 14, 2007

Thirty-five years ago, Maryland voters were given an opportunity to decide whether the state should run a lottery. At the time, choosing to conduct a lottery was considered momentous. States were just beginning to organize them, and skeptics fretted that it wasn't an appropriate activity for government.

The measure passed the General Assembly by the necessary margin and voters went along. Now lawmakers are moving to pass another amendment to the constitution, one that would permit slot machine gambling at various locations around the state, and it, too, would require voter approval.

The parallels are striking. Even those who have opposed the various slot machine proposals presented in recent years must acknowledge that requiring a slots bill to be endorsed by voters is a step in the right direction.

There are many reasons for this - not least of which is that it requires that some parameters be set. Voters will know how many locations and machines and have some idea where they'd be located before making their decision. Future governors and legislatures would have to abide by those terms.

The Senate has already passed a constitutional amendment. The House should now join it. If slots must be approved to solve Maryland's structural deficit - and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has made clear he will not allow a deficit-reduction plan to advance without them - then far better to put the choice in the hands of voters next November.

Naysayers may claim that slots are hardly the stuff of constitutions - but only those who haven't read Maryland's. The rather unwieldy document spells out such esoterica as Baltimore industrial loan and off-street parking regulations, the appointment of directors to canal companies, and a ban on the title "state pension commissioner." Amending it is just a convenient way to put the issue to voters.

This isn't a matter of sidestepping legislative responsibility. Rather, it's an example of compromise in the face of gridlock. To become law, Gov. Martin O'Malley's slots plan will have withstood not only the scrutiny of lawmakers but also a year of review by the public. Clearly, its passage is no sure thing.

It's foolish to suggest that a referendum is somehow less democratic than a vote by elected officials, particularly when voters will have ample time to be informed. Such a controversial and divisive issue as slots is in a category (nearly) all by itself. The public deserves to have the final say.

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