A panel of Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judges ruled yesterday that the proposed ballot language for November's slot-machine referendum is "misleading" but said it could be fixed by adding a single word to clarify that state education programs are not the sole recipients of anticipated revenues.
The judges ordered that one word be added to the ballot language.
Irwin R. Kramer, the attorney for two anti-slots groups fighting a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize slots, said he had hoped the court would go further, adding that he planned to appeal the ruling to the state's highest court.
"We're gratified that the court found that the question in its current form was indeed deceptive and would mislead voters," said Kramer. "But we don't feel the court has gone far enough to ensure scrupulous accuracy in voting as the [state] constitution demands."
After hearing arguments in the morning, the three-judge panel determined that by omitting the word "primary" from a ballot summary of the constitutional amendment bill passed by the General Assembly last year, Secretary of State John P. McDonough had violated state election law.
The bill says the "primary" purpose of the slots referendum is to raise revenue for education projects; McDonough's ballot language instead reads that the amendment has "the purpose of raising revenue for education."
Under the court's ruling, the ballot must be changed to describe education funding as the referendum's "primary purpose."
Bigger change rejected
Despite finding that the ballot language was misleading, the court rejected Kramer's requests to alter the ballot language more significantly or to throw out the referendum entirely.
At the heart of the anti-slots groups' argument is that the ballot language offered by the secretary of state misrepresents the initiative because it does not mention that slots revenue will subsidize the horse racing industry and benefit gambling interests. The constitutional amendment would legalize 15,000 slot machines at five locations across the state.
But in defending the secretary of state, the attorney general's office argued that the ballot language must closely follow the wording of the constitutional amendment as passed by the legislature. That bill also does not specify any beneficiary of slots revenues other than public education - although a companion bill does.
If voters approve slots, nearly 50 percent of the revenue would go to public education. The rest of the money would subsidize the horse racing industry, with small businesses, local governments and gambling operators also receiving funds.
Kramer had urged the judges to take one of two steps: require the ballot to list all the beneficiaries of slots revenues or list none of them. He said that if the court allows the ballot question to mention only benefits to education - which is how the General Assembly framed the bill - that would be tantamount to "granting the legislature a license to deceive."
Frederick W. Puddester, head of a pro-slots ballot committee, criticized Kramer's intention to appeal to the Court of Appeals. "The anti-slots activists are wasting taxpayers' dollars by continuing their frivolous lawsuit," Puddester said in a statement. "They're using the courts to run their political campaign, which is a waste of tax dollars at any time - but especially now that we're in the middle of a budget crisis that threatens funding for education, public safety and transportation."
If it accepts the case, the Court of Appeals is expected to act quickly, with fewer than eight weeks until the election. Yesterday was a deadline for state election officials to provide the ballot to local boards for review, lawyers said.