Slots foes may contest ballot text

Wording's neutrality concerns opponents

August 15, 2008|By Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman | Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman,Sun reporters

Ocean City - Slots opponents said yesterday that they are contemplating a lawsuit to contest the wording of a November referendum on whether to allow the establishment of 15,000 slot machines at five sites across the state.

The ballot language has not been drafted, but anti-slots forces are worried that Secretary of State John P. McDonough - who is charged with writing it - will undermine the neutrality of the wording because of his previous work as a lawyer and lobbyist for Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.

Under the initiative, slots would not be allowed at Rosecroft, but the harness track would benefit from purse subsidies and facility improvement funds if the referendum succeeds.

McDonough has resisted calls from slots opponents to recuse himself from the task of writing the ballot measure and said he does not see a conflict because his current job is to work in the state's best interest. He also noted that it is his statutory duty to craft the language and that the law does not set out who would write it in case of recusal.

Moreover, he said, the General Assembly already made the policy decisions surrounding slots when it passed a bill in 2007 putting the issue to voters. His role merely entails reducing that statutory language to a shorter form, he said.

"Frankly it's pretty straightforward," McDonough said. "There really is nothing dramatic here."

The issue arose yesterday when slots supporters denounced the foes of expanded gambling as "anti-democratic" for reportedly contemplating a lawsuit aimed at pulling the entire slots question from the ballot.

In response, a spokesman for the anti-slots forces said he was inaccurately quoted in a WBAL radio story that raised the issue and said he was bringing up the possibility of a lawsuit related to the ballot language, not the referendum itself.

"We learned earlier this week from some reporting that anti-slots people are considering filing a lawsuit to stop the referendum in November," Frederick W. Puddester, chairman of the pro-slots ballot committee For Maryland, For Our Future, said in a conference call. "We just don't think that's right. It's anti-democratic."

Puddester was referring to a radio story broadcast Sunday in which Scott Arceneaux, a senior adviser to the anti-slots ballot committee, was quoted as saying his group might file a lawsuit to block the referendum if McDonough didn't recuse himself.

Arceneaux said he was misquoted in the radio story and fired back at Puddester for trying to frighten voters. "Fred Puddester is unnecessarily and without justification or any evidence raising a nonissue that will once again scare folks, which is the whole basis of their campaign," Arceneaux said.

Earlier in the day, Comptroller Peter Franchot, a slots opponent, held a news conference on the Ocean City boardwalk denouncing slots as a dangerous gamble with Maryland's economy. Also speaking in opposition were the executive director of the resort town's Chamber of Commerce and several members of county councils, including those of Montgomery and Worcester counties.

The local officials were in town for the annual conference of the Maryland Association of Counties. The statewide umbrella group of local governments supports slots, which is also backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, because the anticipated revenues would help support public education and health care programs.

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