The state teachers union voted late Friday night to support voter approval of slot machine gambling in a November referendum, the union announced yesterday.
Maryland State Teachers Association President Clara Floyd said in a statement that the referendum would bolster education funding at a time when the state's fiscal outlook is bleak. She pointed to a proposed Education Trust Fund, which would dedicate half of the future proceeds to public schools, and licensing fees, which would be collected starting in early 2009.
The endorsement comes after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller warned the powerful union that they needed to support the proposal to legalize slot machine gambling or be prepared for severe cuts in education funding. Other state leaders and some local teachers associations had urged the 67,000-member group to remain neutral or seek more input before weighing in.
"Because of our state's precarious fiscal outlook, if this referendum fails, students, teachers and support staff will be left with outdated facilities, larger classes, outdated textbooks and shortages of materials," Floyd said in the statement. "School systems will be left with fewer resources to recruit and retain the best teachers and support staff."
Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of StopSlots Maryland, called the union's vote "sad" and said Miller's comments seemed to be out of step with the state's traditional view of education funding.
"Education is supposed to be the priority," Meisner said. "But what he's saying here is that unless we get this windfall, we're not going to fund our very first priority. It's an odd message to send - not only to the students and teachers but to everybody who supports education - that the way you fund this is with your last dollar."
After five years of bitter deadlock in Annapolis over the slots question, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, persuaded the General Assembly in November to let voters settle the issue, setting up a yearlong public campaign over the expansion of gambling.
In January, a Sun poll found that 56 percent of likely voters support amending the Maryland Constitution to authorize 15,000 slot machines in five jurisdictions: one each in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil and Worcester counties. Just more than one-third of the respondents said they oppose slots.
Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the state teachers association, said the organization had sought input from local unions in past meetings and sent out surveys to its members. While he would not disclose the figures behind the internal poll, he said they reflected the same sentiments as public polls.
Slots opponents in recent days accused Miller of essentially holding the union hostage by "threatening" to assign the responsibility for funding teacher pensions to local school jurisdictions, a move that would almost certainly force them to impose severe budget cuts.
They also cried foul when legislation considered a top priority by the teachers association - which would create a labor relations board to negotiate labor disputes with the union, removing that power from the State Board of Education - stalled for more than a month in a Senate committee.
Kaufman said that although the board discussed "what was going on in the legislature," the decision to support slots was "made independently."