Sunday, April 13, 2008

Annapolis Capital Editorial

Must read.

Published April 13, 2008

The $1.4 billion in taxes and fees approved in last fall's legislative special session wasn't enough. Neither were the $500 million or so in budget cuts approved in the just-ended regular session.Gov. Martin O'Malley's long-term plans for balancing the books rest on the state's voters, who will be asked about seven months from now to approve a referendum clearing the way for up to 15,000 legal slot machines in Maryland, up to 4,250 of them in Anne Arundel County.

Polls keep showing a majority of Marylanders supporting slots, at least for now. But the multibillion-dollar gambling industry knows that such referendums usually lose, and so will pour money into the state to make sure.

The industry will be opposed by modestly funded grass-roots organizations with one big advantage: Some people have a deep-seated revulsion to state-proffered gambling, particularly if it is going to be anywhere near them. And few have a deep-seated attraction to it - they just have an attraction to the general notion of paying lower taxes because other people are willing to throw their money away.

Those who are passionate about yanking the levers of one-armed bandits are now motoring to other states to do so - and may continue to do so even if slots emporiums open in Maryland, given the way Maryland's facilities are going to be placed, and given that neighboring states may well jump to casinos to keep their customers. And not many care passionately about saving the state's dwindling horse-racing industry.

No, the best selling point for slots is support for the schools. Enter, on cue, the Maryland State Teachers Association, which this year abandoned its traditional neutrality on the issue to endorse the slots referendum. In a guest column last Sunday, the MSTA's president insisted that this decision was reached independently of any arm-twisting - for instance, warnings about cuts
in teachers' pensions. Right. Sure.

The education argument is a favorite one for lotteries, slots or whatever else the state's politicians favor at the moment. If the MSTA's leaders want to act as if they take such promises at face value, that's their business. But Maryland voters may want to think about when they've heard such arguments before and what actually happened.

There are other questions for Marylanders: Do we really think extra revenue from slots will someday reduce taxes? Do we trust the current group in Annapolis to cleanly and efficiently set up what amounts to a state-supervised gambling cartel? Are the purported benefits being weighed against the full costs - gambling addiction, crime, the effect on neighborhoods? Are all of the slots players really going to be Marylanders who are now driving out of state, or is some of the revenue dumped into those heavily taxed machines going to be diverted from local businesses?

It's just as well Marylanders have seven months to prepare for this crucial decision.