The decision Howard County voters face Nov. 4 on whether to allow slot-machine gambling came into stark relief during a Columbia Democratic Club-sponsored discussion between Del. Frank S. Turner and Stop Slots Maryland President Aaron Meisner.
If voters approve the measure, Maryland will get five slots casinos, the locations of which are set in the referendum, including one most likely at Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel County, near the border with Howard.
State officials say the projected $600 million in revenue is badly needed to fill widening holes in Maryland's budget. But Meisner argued to a group of about 50 at Jeffers Hill Community Center on Wednesday night that the machines are designed to prey on the poor and addicted and will lead to more crime, while siphoning money to greedy out-of-state gambling firms that are flooding Maryland with lobbying money.
"It's a regressive, racist tax," he said, noting that most state lottery sales are in heavily African-American jurisdictions such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
Audience member Ron Somerville asked why Maryland, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, can't raise enough tax revenue to pay its bills.
"You ducked your responsibility," he said to Turner.
The delegate replied that he is merely one vote in Annapolis.
"I voted for more tax increases than I ever thought I would," Turner said.
But Ethel Hill, who said jokingly that she is "too cheap to gamble," believes others can afford it and enjoy it.
"I have lots of friends who do," she said. "They're retired, they have disposable income and they do travel."
Meisner said the amount of money residents gamble away outside Maryland is negligible.
Turner, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and heads a subcommittee on slots, did not defend gambling, but he argued that slots are needed to help supplement Maryland's tax revenue. The slowing economy is predicted to leave a $432 million shortfall in the state budget this fiscal year and a $1 billion shortfall in fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, 2009.
"I've never been a big slots person, but we need another source of revenue," Turner told the group. The sales tax increase has not produced enough money, and legislators will not raid depleted transportation or open-space funds.
Although the General Assembly failed last year to broaden the manufacturing-based sales tax to services or fundamentally revamp the state's almost flat income tax structure, legislators won't vote to increase taxes again before the 2010 elections.
"The next two years, they're [legislators] not going to raise taxes," Turner said. "They'll cut till it hurts."
Modern, computer-driven video slot terminals are a far cry from the mechanical one-armed bandits of old, Meisner said.
"They use behavioral scientists to make the most effective - that means addictive - machines," he said.
The idea is not to get a player's first dollar or even the first $1,000, but to get the player's last dollar, he said.
The machines prey on the poor and those least able to afford to gamble, and that will produce a spike in crime, he said, describing a scenario in which a husband who has lost his paycheck comes home, gets into an argument and beats his wife.
"She ends up in the hospital, he's in jail and the kids are in foster care," said Meisner, who grew up in Columbia but now lives in Mount Washington, near Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore.
He further argued that the referendum does not guarantee "one new dollar for schools," despite assurances from the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley that about half of the proceeds would be used to fund education.
The fiscal squeeze facing Howard County is due to be the prime topic next month, when Ray Wacks, the county budget director, convenes an early session of the Spending Affordability Committee. But the problem was already in the minds of those who attended a recent breakfast for County Council members and state legislators sponsored by the school board.
Wacks, jokingly referred to as "Mr. Gloom and Doom" by school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, also attended the event, held at the Applications and Research Lab school next to board headquarters.
And Wacks' message lived up to his nickname.
"We're facing two very tough years," he said.
Even if the national economy improves, it will take tax revenue that long to improve, he said. If the county increases borrowing through the sale of bonds to pay for soaring school construction bills, that will mean higher interest payments and less money for operating needs. If the state's budget woes produce more cuts to local governments, that would only make things worse.
Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who has been pushing for a new funding source for school renovations and a new elementary school in the U.S. 1 corridor, framed the problem in terms that every lawmaker could understand.
The county's new home construction excise tax has been squeezed dry, and state school construction money is likely to decline next year, while inflation has boosted per-square-foot costs more than 50 percent since 2005. Potentially, that could mean the county could produce $65 million for school construction next fiscal year, though the school board's request is for $125.3 million.
"That leaves a gap of ..." Watson said, before trailing off.
"A lot," Del. Guy Guzzone chimed in.