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Will referendum be final word on Md. slots? Don't bet on it

After years of gridlock in Annapolis, millions of dollars spent by gambling interests, and incessant protest rallies, voters may render the final verdict Tuesday on slot machines in Maryland.

But don't bet on it.

Slots gambling has been one of the most intractable and enduring issues in Maryland political history. Forty years after the General Assembly banned slots and the last machines were rolled out of taverns and flashy casinos in Southern Maryland, known then as "Little Vegas," the state legislature has resurrected the so-called one-armed bandits and put their legalization to voters in a referendum.

If Marylanders approve the proposal and amend the state Constitution to allow 15,000 slots at five locations, so begins potential zoning fights at the local level, jockeying among gambling companies and developers, and the continued debate over the impact of gambling on the state's social fabric.

If voters reject the idea, so begins what some believe will be the sure demise of the ailing horse-racing industry in Maryland as well as epic budget battles in Annapolis brought on by the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in slots proceeds that would have gone to tracks and horse breeders and to help fill massive revenue shortfalls. And, some observers say, don't count on lawmakers letting the slots issue drop.

"This is merely the end of the beginning," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a stalwart slots opponent and a Montgomery County Democrat first elected to the legislature in the late 1970s. "The idea that the referendum will somehow seal the fate of gambling is absolutely sophomoric."

"It's a multibillion-dollar industry that has identified Maryland as a lucrative market," said Simmons, who has sent thousands of letters to constituents in recent days urging them to vote down the slots proposal. "They are not going to be put off."

In recent days, both sides have been crisscrossing the state and airing television commercials to make their closing arguments on the proposal, which would put slots in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Allegany, Cecil and Worcester counties.

Polling has been mixed. A recent Zogby Interactive poll of likely voters showed a slight edge for opponents, with 47.5 percent against and 44.6 percent in favor of the referendum. That's within the margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

But the survey, commissioned by StopSlots Maryland, shows nearly 8 percent of respondents had not decided how they would vote, and previous polls have shown slots proponents with wide majorities.

Opponents have been emphasizing the crime, addiction, bankruptcies and suicides associated with gambling, with downtrodden populations particularly affected. Comptroller Peter Franchot and state lawmakers appeared Friday at Baltimore's Harbour Pointe, the oldest treatment center in the nation solely dedicated to treating compulsive gambling.

Meanwhile, proponents have been emphasizing the need for slots to solve the state's financial crisis, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has been pushing for the referendum's passage at public appearances. The Democratic governor warned at a recent event that deep cuts to education, health care and public safety would be "inevitable" without an estimated $600 million that would accrue to the state from slots.

Maryland has been here before. The legislature wrangled with slots decades ago when residents in southern counties complained that thousands of slot machines, especially along a stretch of U.S. 301, had a corrupting influence on politics, the economy and family life. The machines were banned in 1963 and phased out over five years.

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was speaker of the House of Delegates at the time, said slots owners were given the chance to keep the machines spinning if they accepted state regulation and taxation, but they refused. With proper regulation, like what's being proposed in the current referendum, "it's not quite the picture of corruption" that opponents paint, he said.

In more recent years, machines that looked and played liked slot machines, but that owners characterized as bingo games, proliferated under a legal loophole. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch agreed this year to ban the lookalike machines, in part, because they could diminish revenues from slots that could be ushered in by the referendum.

Busch and Miller had come together a few months earlier to win passage of the referendum legislation, the culmination of five years of debate that began with proposals from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Busch had been a longtime slots foe but backed the referendum last year as part of a broader budget-balancing package forwarded by O'Malley. Miller and Busch are both Democrats.

Many believe a weakening economy that exacerbated the state's fiscal problems helped break the logjam in Annapolis - and will bolster support for the referendum.

"The bottom line is that the economy is driving this," said Laurence Levitan, a former state senator and a lobbyist who has represented gambling interests. Compared with other revenue raisers, such as tax increases, "this is an acceptable solution," he said.

O'Malley and Busch have predicted the issue will finally be put to rest should voters say "no" to slots.

Miller, however, declined to say whether he would continue to champion slots as he has for years if the referendum fails. "I'm fairly certain it's going to pass," he said, "and I'll address the election results afterward."

Should voters approve slots, the plan still faces roadblocks, and could be altered in the future.

Some observers predict a zoning fight in Anne Arundel County, though County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican who opposes the plan, said he hasn't decided whether he would try to block rezoning to authorize expanded gambling if the measure passes. Others say a lawsuit might be filed to block slots at Laurel Park if it wins a license to operate them.

A city-owned parcel that would accommodate a gambling casino in South Baltimore also would have to be rezoned, but Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake both strongly support the proposal, so legislative hurdles are less likely there.

The economy could also provide obstacles. A tight credit market, a gambling industry hampered by slowing consumer spending, and a relatively high tax rate imposed on gambling operators all combine to lend uncertainty to whether, and how many, casino operators will bid on the five licenses.

Lawmakers could change the tax rate on their own.

But any changes to the locations or number of machines would have to go back before voters in the form of another constitutional amendment.

After months of campaigning - and years of deliberating slots proposals - the referendum vote does represent a finish line of sorts. "It will be a relief to everybody," O'Malley said. "I'm looking forward to Tuesday."

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