Slots attack on 2 fronts

2 groups of opponents go to court, 1 to Board of Elections

August 29, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,

Gambling opponents attacked the wording yesterday of a coming referendum to legalize slot machines on two fronts, with two groups asking the courts to intervene and one demanding that the Maryland State Board of Elections change the ballot language.

Stop Slots Maryland, a ballot committee, and anti-slots activists NoCasinoNo filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, while Marylanders United to Stop Slots - another ballot committee - pleaded their case before the Board of Elections in Annapolis.

Their general arguments were the same: They say the November ballot language on a constitutional amendment to legalize 15,000 slot machines across the state misrepresents the initiative because it does not mention that slots revenue will subsidize the horse racing industry and benefit gambling interests.

The question, as worded by Secretary of State John McDonough, "doesn't pass the fairness test" and "misrepresents the slots proposal," Scott Arceneaux of Marylanders United to Stop Slots said at a meeting of the elections board.

In response, Deputy Secretary of State Brian R. Moe told the board that McDonough "carried out his duty in good faith" and adhered to the language in the constitutional amendment legislation, which also does not specify any beneficiary of slots revenues other than public education.

Companion legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2007 spells out precisely where the more than $600 million in projected slots tax revenues would go. An education trust fund is the primary beneficiary, but taxes levied on slots operators would also go to the horse racing industry and the state lottery.

"My statutory duty is to condense the amendment, not other legislation," McDonough, who has come under criticism as a former lobbyist for a Maryland racetrack, said in a written statement.

Arceneaux acknowledged McDonough's strict reading of his duties but said, "Legal log-rolling and legal niceties should not be used to deceive voters."

As late as Wednesday night, Elections Board Chairman Robert L. Walker said he would not allow Arceneaux to testify before the board yesterday. Deputy elections administrator Ross Goldstein said the board relented once McDonough's office indicated its willingness to offer counter-testimony.

After the presentations to the elections board by both sides, Assistant Attorney General Mark Davis said his office has advised the board that it has "no jurisdiction" to alter the wording of a ballot question. Walker then said he was convinced that the elections authority "has no role to play" in the dispute.

Davis predicted that the courts would ultimately decide the issue, referring to the lawsuit filed yesterday by the other anti-slots groups. Their attorney is Irwin R. Kramer, who represented Republicans when they sued to overturn tax increases approved by the General Assembly in last year's special legislative session. The Court of Appeals ruled against Kramer.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican who was the lead plaintiff in that effort, is also a co-plaintiff in the ballot suit.

Kramer is asking the court to make the Elections Board direct McDonough to rewrite the ballot question "with neutral language that fairly and accurately apprises voters of the true nature of the issue upon which they are voting."

The suit also asks the court to invalidate the constitutional amendment bill generally, on the grounds that it represents an unlawful delegation of duties from the legislature to the people. A similar argument in Kramer's previous lawsuit was rejected by Maryland courts.

Frederick W. Puddester, chairman of the pro-slots ballot committee For Maryland, For Our Future, criticized the lawsuit as a "frivolous" and "anti-democratic" effort to prevent voters from having their say on the slots issue. Maryland voters are "tired of this endless politicking," Puddester said in a statement. "It's time to let the people decide."

Arceneaux said his group, which is backed by Comptroller Peter Franchot, declined to join Kramer's suit because "we feel strongly that the referendum should go forward," just with different ballot language.

Under state law, the elections board is responsible for ensuring that ballots "present ... questions in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner."

After the meeting, Franchot issued a statement calling the bipartisan Elections Board a "rubber stamp" for the pro-slots administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley, his political rival. "It's no wonder people are cynical about government," Franchot said. "The board ... simply threw up its hands and walked away from its obligation to ensure a fair election."

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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