Proponents of expanded gambling have enlisted four leading political figures — including Gov. Martin O'Malley — to make television ads assuring voters that the additional tax revenue expected to flow into state coffers will go to education.
The 30-second spots aim to counter what is apparently an effective argument by opponents of Question 7 on the Nov. 6 ballot: That voters can't trust politicians not to divert the additional revenue away from the schools.
The latest ads show O'Malley, Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and and former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith telling Marylanders that if they stop the flow of gambling dollars to neighboring states, the money will be used in the classroom.
O'Malley's ad, paid for by a ballot committee financed largely by MGM Resorts International, shows him looking directly into the camera and urging Marylanders to vote yes on a plan that would raise state revenue by allowing a new casino in Prince George's County and allowing table games at all casinos in the state.
"As governor, I can promise you that money will go to education. That's the law, and that's what we'll do," he said.
The ad follows harsh criticism the governor leveled at Penn National Gaming, the chief opponent of the gambling expansion plan, for its arguments questioning Maryland leaders' commitment to using the new revenue to fund schools. Penn National ads make the argument that there is no guarantee that money earmarked for education in the law will actually increase state funding for schools.
Independent analysts have pointed out that is true; while the law directs revenue to the Education Trust Fund, lawmakers are free to reduce other spending on schools to offset the increased revenue in the trust fund.
MGM wants to operate a new casino at National Harbor in Prince George's while Penn National, which operates a large casino in West Virginia, wants to block it. Together they have raised more than $45 million for a high-stakes ad war.
According to proponents, the O'Malley ad is on the air in both Washington and Baltimore. Another ad, pairing Leggett and Baker, is being shown in the Washington area. Two versions of ads by Smith are running on Baltimore stations. All are being paid for by FOR Maryland Jobs and Schools, the ballot committee set up by MGM and other Question 7 backers.
The ads represent an apparent shift in tactics by casino supporters, who previously had been touting the economic development benefits of the gambling expansion plan.
Steve Raabe, president of the polling firm OpinionWorks, said he's surprised by supporters' decision to use public officials in the ads.
"Trust in elected officials is not at a high level right now," he said. "They've identified the fact they need to change strategy, but this is an unusual way to go at the end because the last thing people want to hear is what politicians think."
Raabe, whose firm polls for The Sun, found in a survey last month that more than half of Maryland voters oppose Question 7, while 38 percent would vote yes. But he did not rule out a comeback by gambling supporters. "Despite all the opposition, it's still entirely possible they can win," he said.
The use of elected officials in an MGM-sponsored ad raises ethical issues, said James Browning, mid-Atlantic director of the watchdog group Common Cause. It raises the appearance of a possible "quid pro quo," he said. The spots also give the officials free publicity for possible future campaigns.
Browning said O'Malley's role in particular raises concerns.
"He's playing for really high stakes now – thinking of running for president. He's going to remember his friends," Browning said.
But Raquel Guillory, O'Malley's spokeswoman, denied the governor's appearance raises ethical issues. She said the governor was not paid and noted that the legislation that put Question 7 on the ballot was his own bill.
"This solely has to do with putting to rest erroneous statements made by the opposition, adding clarity and voicing his support for legislation that he sponsored," she said.
Leggett said his appearance was made without pay and on his own time. He said he made the ad simply because he believes Question 7 would make good public policy. A spokesman for Baker could not be reached.
Kevin McLaughlin, a spokesman for the ballot committee funded by Penn National, said the appearance of O'Malley and Baker in the ads shows a bias toward National Harbor and against Rosecroft Raceway, a Penn National-owned property that is eligible under the law to compete for a casino license.
"It would give the appearance that the open bidding process they claim there is actually a farce," McLaughlin said.