A spin of the wheel

Our view : Tuesday's passage of the slots referendum marks the beginning of a process

whether voters get what they wanted depends on the critical choices that lie ahead

November 07, 2008

This week's approval of the slots referendum by such an overwhelming margin might seem at odds with the years of long and heated deliberations in Annapolis that preceded it. A majority of voters in every county, including those with a history of opposing gambling, cast ballots in support.

This outcome is not merely a product of an ailing economy and heightened concern over education funding or higher taxes (although both played a role). It also reflects voters' perceptions that this particular plan was reasonable and limited.

By writing slots into the state constitution, lawmakers placed a significant cap on any expansion of gambling. There can be no more than 15,000 machines or any new locations beyond the specified five without a second referendum. That level of specificity made the slots vote no pig in a poke. Even so, there are plenty of opportunities for mischief in how licenses are awarded and how the state is compensated. There is already talk that the state's share is too high and that this will limit the number of bidders or produce low-rent slots parlors that won't deliver the promised revenues.

Such speculation is premature. Under the law, there is a process to be followed. Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature's presiding officers must appoint a seven-member Video Lottery Facility Location Commission. The commission must ask for proposals and evaluate those plans. Only then will the public know if current plans are unworkable.

What's vital now is for the commission to have credible and impartial members with no connection to the potential bidders or the gambling industry. Their review ought to be transparent and thorough so that the public is well aware of who is bidding and the merits of what is being proposed.

Even a hint of bias or backroom deals would be disastrous, particularly for Mr. O'Malley and Democratic lawmakers. The gambling industry spends huge sums on lobbying and political contributions; the last thing elected officials need is a corruption scandal.

The governor is no doubt eager to get slots on track. The state budget needs the money. Even the promise of slots-related revenue in future years can reduce deficits in the short term - the state can tap the rainy day fund in exchange for a proverbial IOU of slots income.

But this is not a process to be rushed. The city this week bought a South Baltimore parking lot that may well define the location of Baltimore's slots facility. But the sites to be chosen in the four other counties are likely to prove far more problematic. Continuing turmoil in the financial market and local opposition to specific site plans may also play a role in these decisions.

Marylanders deserve a process they can be proud of. The choices made in the coming months will be crucial to that end.

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