A rigged game?

Our view : Slots ballot question doesn't quite pass the fairness test

August 20, 2008

While Maryland slot machine opponents may be guilty of sometimes overstating (and perhaps prematurely stating) their objections to the wording of this fall's ballot question, they are also correct on this central point: The proposal's claimed impact on education funding is misleading.

The ballot language submitted this week by Secretary of State John P. McDonough goes to considerable length (about one-quarter of its total 100-odd words) to describe how revenue raised from the potential 15,000 machines would go to various forms of education spending.

That's true, technically, but the constitutional amendment doesn't require more money to be spent on education this year, next year or any year slots revenue might be available. A governor could just as easily redirect general fund money that would ordinarily be spent on education for other purposes and thus make the impact of slots revenue on schools meaningless.

Supporters can argue (as they have and will) that slots revenue is vital to prevent future budget deficits that might require cuts in state education spending or tax increases. Fair enough, but that's speculative and not the central issue before voters.

The ballot question's elaborate description of how slots revenue would fund education is in sharp contrast to its failure to fully explain where the slot emporiums would be located. Only the subdivisions in question are identified. Perhaps Mr. McDonough ran out of space on his sample ballot, but more likely he didn't want to stoke opposition in Baltimore or the four counties involved.

No matter where one stands on the issue of slots, Maryland voters need a fair explanation of the constitutional amendment - not necessarily a complete but at least a balanced one. Decades ago, the state lottery required approval by voters, and many still remember the empty promises of how lottery revenues would go to underwrite schools.

The fix here is easy. A new version should simply state that the revenue would be used for education - period. It needn't delineate the potential ills that come from slots. That's the burden of opponents. But it shouldn't make misleading pro-slots claims that undermine the process.

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