Those counties with the ability to raise property taxes would likely do so, Bliden said. And the four counties that have already maxed out their property tax rates - Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Wicomico and Talbot - would have little choice but to cut services in essential areas like public safety, he said.

"The real risk in all of this, so far as local governments go, is that you dial 911 and get a busy signal," Bliden said.

Less likely to happen - with or without slots - are statewide tax increases of the type O'Malley and Democratic leaders ushered through in 2007 and 2008. The governor's popularity ratings plummeted after those increases, and neither he nor the legislature is likely to risk further eroding voter support before the 2010 election.

"My sense is that the folks in the legislature are not excited about going back to the revenue well," said Deschenaux.

Meanwhile, slots opponents such as Comptroller Peter Franchot are urging voters to keep in mind that a "yes" vote on slots is not a short-term solution to the state's fiscal woes and that major spending cuts are coming regardless of the referendum's outcome.

"Even if slots were to pass in November, we will still have a significant budget shortfall," Franchot said, a statement he and slots supporters agree on.

Budget analysts say short-term cuts can be minimized if voters approve slots. With a predictable new revenue stream in the offing, the state can borrow more liberally from its $700 million "rainy day fund" without endangering its AAA bond rating, they say.

"With slots, we could possibly have to find somewhere between a couple hundred million and $500 million" next year, Deschenaux said. "In the absence of slots, we are going to need to find between $500 million and a billion dollars."

But Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the terms of Maryland's slots plan increase the likelihood that it would generate expensive "social costs" and minimize economic benefits. He said that danger is particularly potent in urban areas such as downtown Baltimore, one of the five prospective slots sites.

Under Maryland's plan, slots parlor operators must send about two-thirds of their revenue to the state, and the unusually high tax rate will make it difficult for them to create "destination" casinos that lure well-heeled tourists, said Eadington and Goss.

According to a new study by Eadington, "Lawmakers who impose gambling privilege taxes higher than 50 percent are trading the possibility of job creation and other economic amenities that casino-style gaming might deliver for government revenues."

In 2003, former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. warned that slot machines in Maryland would result in increased crime, bankruptcies, divorces and other social problems that would outweigh the economic benefits.

But Eadington and other economists - while recognizing the potential for social costs - say they are difficult to calculate.

Politically, a voter rejection of the slots referendum could put to bed an issue that has stymied Annapolis for years.

"During my lifetime it will not be an issue again," said House of Delegates Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, "I don't see how a vote by the public can be ignored by elected officeholders."

the slots referendum
When: November 2008

What: Legalize as many as 15,000 slot machines.

Where: Sites in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.

How much: Slots could generate more than $600 million annually when fully phased in by 2012 or 2013.

Who gets the money: Chief beneficiaries are public education, horse racing industry, gambling industry