The push for slots, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature issue, faded in prominence in last fall after a deal to put a gambling referendum on the November ballot failed and lawmakers turned their attention to the state's medical malpractice crisis.
But with the recent legalization of slot machines in Pennsylvania, voters' desire to see more funding for education and continued pressure from well-funded interests that stand to gain from gambling, the issue is almost certain to resurface in the legislative session that starts Wednesday.
"The people who drive through Baltimore and see all those slots billboards from Delaware and West Virginia, I can't understand why they're not incensed," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the most powerful slots advocate in the legislature. "Each one says to the driver, 'You're building schools in Delaware and West Virginia and now Pennsylvania,' and yet the kids in Maryland have to go to school in trailers."
The 56 percent approval rating is the highest level slot machines have achieved in the annual Sun Poll, up from 52 percent at this time last year. The number of people who oppose slot machines dropped 2 points, to 37 percent.
The margin of error for the poll, a survey of 800 likely voters conducted Tuesday and Wednesday last week by Potomac Inc. of Bethesda, is 3.5 percentage points.
Ehrlich originally pitched slots as a way to help Maryland out of its budget woes. But voters apparently didn't consider that argument in making up their minds, because 87 percent said the state's improving finances didn't affect their views on slots. Nine percent said they were less likely to support slots because the state's economy was improving.
Support is highest in the suburban counties around Baltimore, where the Republican's political base is strongest, but it is nearly as high in Baltimore City, a heavily Democratic jurisdiction whose legislators played a key role in scuttling the most recent attempt to legalize slots in the state.
The poll found that only 4 percent of voters think legalizing slot machines is the most important issue facing the state. But in pushing for gambling, Ehrlich and Miller have linked it to support for education, solving the state's budget problems, economic development and improving the health of the . Nearly 45 percent of voters named one of those issues as most important to them.
"The money is being spent on slot machines in other states, and why should we send our money to other states when the state so desperately needs money?" said Barbara Kelly of Reisterstown, who was interviewed for the poll.
Miller pledged that a slots bill will pass the Senate this spring for the third year in a row. But Ehrlich, noting that the House of Delegates has scuttled slots deals for the last two years, said last week that he hasn't decided whether to introduce a bill.
"I would hate to follow the road map of the last couple of years, which is to have a strong bill come out of the Senate and go nowhere in the House," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch agreed in September to a plan that would have put a constitutional amendment authorizing slots on the November ballot. But the deal crumbled after Busch ran into strong opposition from Prince George's County and Baltimore delegates, who objected to provisions that would have put slots parlors in their jurisdictions.
Busch said voters' support for slots tends to fade when they discuss the details of a proposal, such as where the machines would be located, who would profit from them and how the state would spend the proceeds.
"It's a tougher issue than a lot of people want to think it is. In two years, I haven't seen any county executive say, 'Give me a slots facility in my county.' I don't know where you'll put them," the speaker said.
Helping bolster the state budget was the most prominent reason slots supporters gave for their position, but nearly as many said they think Maryland is losing too much money to neighboring states that allow the machines. Just 3 percent of supporters said they want slots in Maryland because they like to play them.
Supporters said in interviews that they simply see no reason not to have slots in Maryland.
"I know there are people out there who have gambling problems, just like there are people who are alcoholics," said Laurie Mathison, a poll respondent from Cockeysville. "For the most part, when you're an adult, you're supposed to be responsible for your own weaknesses. To be objective about it, it's added revenue to the government, and I think we should go for it."
The poll also suggests that Ehrlich is in tune with Maryland voters in saying he wants slot machines so the state can expand its revenues without raising taxes. Just 45 percent of voters said they thought the state should raise taxes, alone or in combination with budget cuts, to solve its budget problems, down from 56 percent last year.
Michael Hoffman, a slots supporter from Pikesville, said he works for a nonprofit organization and has seen the effects of federal and state budget cuts over the past few years. But, he said, the state needs to look for more creative revenue sources, such as slots.
"I'd rather see slots rather than increasing taxes," Hoffman said.
Although the Baltimore region supports slots by a 2-to-1 margin, poll respondents in Maryland's Washington suburbs were evenly split on the issue, with 47 percent opposed and 46 percent in favor of them. Montgomery County was the only jurisdiction where the poll found a majority opposed to slots.
Jeffrey Laizure of Gaithersburg said he sees slots as "a poor excuse for proper tax policy." Maryland should decide what programs it needs to fund and find the fairest way to raise taxes to pay for them, he said.
"Doing pie in the sky with slot machines is not the right way to go," Laizure said. "It is taking from potentially the poorest and giving it to the state to use to satisfy its needs. I see that as regressive taxation."
Sun staff writers Stephanie Desmon and Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.