Slots Referendum

Drive for votes already heats up

General Assembly -- Special Session

November 20, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

The General Assembly's passage of a slot machine gambling referendum sets the stage for an extraordinary public campaign that some believe will rival the most bitter state political races, in a year when the 2008 presidential contest will drive high voter turnout.

Rare alliances will be forged on both sides of the issue as they mount multimillion-dollar advertising and organizing efforts in advance of the November 2008 referendum.

"We need a lot of little heroes," said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for StopSlots Maryland, a grass-roots organization that he believes will have an organizing advantage. "This will be a hard fight in the sense that we have to show people that there's no such thing as free money. Any money from slot machines will just come out of what some family or needy individual would have spent on something else they needed."

Gambling interests from neighboring states that have slot machine gambling are also expected to try to defeat Maryland's initiative.

But slot machine supporters said they believe the odds are in their favor.

"They can do whatever they want," said William M. Rickman Jr., a Montgomery County developer and major political contributor who owns Ocean Downs racetrack in Worcester County, which seems poised to get 2,500 machines under the bill. "The fact of the matter is that gambling is accepted in the United States today. That's why people are watching poker on TV, because they like it. Look at the lottery. That's the worst deal anybody could possibly get, and people still buy the tickets."

Gov. Martin O'Malley pushed the slots bill as a way to generate revenue to help close a $1.7 billion budget shortfall, rescue the state's horseracing industry and preserve open space.

Although slots stalled in the General Assembly when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, O'Malley persuaded the Democrat-controlled legislature to let the voters decide the contentious issue. The ballot question will ask whether Maryland's Constitution should be amended to allow 15,000 machines at five sites: one each in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties. The measure would permit slots at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel, but not at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

Legislative analysts have found that slot machines could generate $650 million a year for the state when fully phased in, although independent analysts say the sum could be much higher.

Many legislators who voted for the referendum will likely go home and campaign against it, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a longtime slots opponent who pushed the referendum through. The Anne Arundel County Democrat characterized the referendum as "the purest form of democracy."

A handful of people on both sides acknowledged they have yet to hash out specific campaign strategies, but the issue could again pit O'Malley against the state's Democratic comptroller, Peter Franchot, a gambling foe.

Pro-gambling interests, who have given heavily to political candidates over the past several years, are expected to spend millions more on a major advertising and organizing blitz to bring voters to their cause.

That process played itself out in four of five states where voters weighed gambling-related ballot initiatives in 2006. Committees supporting and opposing gambling measures in Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas raised $54 million, with gambling-related enterprises ponying up nearly 90 percent of that amount, according to a September report from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Still, all but one of the six ballot measures considered in those contests failed, despite the fact that pro-gambling interests outspent anti-gambling forces nearly seven to one.

"It won't be a fight over money," said C. B. Forgotston, a Louisiana attorney and anti-gambling advocate who has studied initiatives all over the country. "The pro-gambling interests will always make the most money, and they could outspend their opponents 100 to 1. The anti-gambling people have always relied on traditional grass-roots organizing."

Ehrlich told WMAR-TV yesterday that he believes voters would approve the slot referendum today, but that that could change.

"After a year of advertising - from West Virginia, from Delaware, from Pennsylvania - [the chances are] 50-50," Ehrlich said.

Louis J. Raffetto Jr., president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Laurel Park and Pimlico, said the group plans to work with horse owners, breeders and unions that represent racing-industry-affiliated employees.

"Everyone's job is on the line here," he said. "This deals with the very survival of the horse industry in Maryland. There's a lot on the line."

Rallies and advertising campaigns are unlikely to focus on the slot machines themselves, said David Dunphy, a lobbyist for the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 27.

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