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News Opinion Editorial

BWI slots: A losing wager

Annapolis may be located on the banks of the Severn River, but during the first three months of the year it often seems to be an island — so isolated are members of the General Assembly from real life. The gyrations of lawmakers over the high-stakes issues of gambling and transportation have produced many such only-in-the-State-House moments in recent years.

So, naturally, it makes sense that when the two are combined — as in an absurd proposal to install 2,500 slot machines at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport — the result is the kind of empty, pandering legislation that does the institution no credit. Somewhere, a former U.S. Supreme Court justice who dedicated his life to the cause of civil rights, and not bilking air travelers, is spinning in his grave.

Let's face it, bills are like lawsuits — just because one gets filed doesn't mean it's going anywhere. Each year, scores of laughable ideas get reduced to bill form and introduced by legislators, sometimes seriously but often just for the sake of a press release or to make a point.

It would be a comfort to think that turning BWI into a super-sized version of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (the largest U.S. airport outfitted with slot machines, but with only about 1,300 of them) was not a serious proposal. But at last count, the bill had 44 sponsors in the House of Delegates, or nearly one-third of the chamber. That's about four times as many sponsors as have signed onto all 10 ethics bills pending before the state legislature combined.

Bad enough that so many have a hankering to reopen the issue of casino gambling, the expansion of which, all those co-sponsors may recall, not only required a special session but voter approval at the polls just last year. But the idea that airport slots revenue is a viable alternative to finance Maryland's transportation needs is beyond idiotic.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and others have recommended that Maryland increase transportation revenue by about $700 million per year to keep up with tens of billions of dollars in unmet road, bridge, port, airport and mass transit construction needs. Airport slot machines might raise tens of millions of dollars but nothing close to what is required.

Expanding the number of slot machines, whether at BWI or elsewhere, not only fails to accomplish that goal but it potentially shortchanges public education, which is supposed to be the chief beneficiary of gambling-related state revenues. The more dollars that go into the new machines, the fewer that go into the existing ones.

That's why last year's decision to approve a casino in Prince George's County required some compensation to the existing vendors — most notably in the form of legalized table games. What would it take to offset slot machines at BWI? A sports book at Maryland Live? Sanctioned cock fighting in Perryville? Legalized marijuana at Rocky Gap and Ocean Downs?

Whatever happened to Maryland as the knowledge-based economy, home of cybersecurity, medical research, biotechnology and top-flight public schools? Are rows and rows of slot machines the image we would want to project to millions of travelers? It's all very well for McCarran to have slots, as Las Vegas is billed as a gambling capital. BWI slots suggests Maryland has similar aspirations. Have we really sunk that far?

Maryland needs to invest more in transportation. That's a fact not much in dispute. We believe the only viable way to meet that need is to raise the state's tax on gasoline from 1992 levels to at least catch up with more than two decades of inflation. But it's clear a lot of lawmakers are scared of a voter backlash if they do.

But here's what they should be really scared about: Central Maryland continues to be stuck with some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. The Washington, D.C. area was ranked last week by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute as worst in the country, with 32 gallons of gas wasted annually by drivers caught in traffic. Combine that with record commuter delays, and it all adds up to a lot more than 10 to 15 cents a gallon on the gas tax.

In other words, we're getting suckered. Keeping the gas tax at 21-year-old levels sounds like a win for consumers, when it's exactly the opposite. Higher commuting costs and higher costs of doing business mean fewer jobs and less economic growth. No wonder lawmakers are looking into more slot machines: They can't even recognize a losing bet when they see one.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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