Referendum on slots wouldn't be a gamble


I LIKE the idea of referendum. It's a bright, blunt instrument of democracy -- people voting not on men but on ideas and laws, specific issues of significant public importance. If from time to time we present large questions on the ballot that ultimately affect the quality of life in a place -- say, the state of Maryland -- what's the harm? In fact, a great good might be served; government might better reflect the wishes of the little people.

Pardon my bromides. But I heard a pol knocking the idea of a slots referendum the other day, and it bugged me.

The political class -- politicians who have held office too long -- hate and fear referendums; they see them as undercutting representative democracy, and, of course, diminishing their power and influence, not to mention their campaign contributions.

Some politicians just don't want minor obstacles -- say, resounding public disapproval -- getting in the way of their hatched-in-the-smoke schemes, especially the ones that cost a pant-leg of money.

When he was governor, William Donald Schaefer had a fit about a group of citizens who opposed state-funded construction of the downtown sports complex. They organized a petition drive to force the stadium-financing issue to referendum. About 44,000 Marylanders signed the petition, but the referendum never happened, shot down by a court decision. But for a while Schaefer was sweating it. He, a lot of other pols and business leaders worried that, given a chance to vote on the issue, Marylanders would have turned thumbs down to new baseball and football stadiums in Baltimore.

But we'll never know for sure.

It's been said that the election of Robert Ehrlich last year constituted a referendum on slot machines in Maryland, with slots winning.

I can see how someone would believe that -- given how Bobby Governor pinned this issue on his chest like a big, cruddy cardboard sign that says: "Slots Addict, Please Help."

He's Bobby Slots.

He's the Slots Man.

He's The Man Who Would Be Ka-Ching.

He backed slots when he campaigned for governor, and the people elected him. So it follows that the people must support 10,000-or-so slot machines to save the Maryland horse-racing industry.

And yet it's not officially so. I think another vote is in order.

So does Michael Busch, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. Busch says he is open to the idea of a statewide referendum on slots.

Busch's peer in the Senate disagrees.

"That's not leadership. That's followership."

That's how our pro-gambling state Senate president, Mike Miller, slammed the prospect of a referendum and public officials, like Busch, who might support the idea.

I like Miller stepping forward to distinguish leaders from followers for us.

Other than successfully holding office since Agnew was a household word -- first elected to the House of Delegates in 1970, to the Senate in 1974, its president since 1987 (and they've already named an Annapolis building after the guy) -- and making sure the legislative clock ticks smartly, it's hard to think of a time when Miller actually took a big, bold stand on something or launched an idealistic crusade.

That's not his style, I guess.

But here he is, joining the governor and courageously backing slots.

And here he is, slamming Busch for urging caution and offering the issue to voters.

"That's not leadership. That's followership."

I guess leadership in Miller's mind is getting with your buddies in the State House, maybe a few lobbyists, some horse and casino industry types, and cobbling together a grand scheme to bring slots to racetracks -- supposedly because the nation's fifth-wealthiest state can no longer afford to go without them. The governor says 10,000-or-so slots will save the state's storied thoroughbred industry, bring happy traffic jams to Pimlico and Laurel, close the state's budget shortfall and provide new textbooks for poor children in underfunded public school districts.

(The governor has an inflated panacea! Is there a doctor in the house?)

Look, if that last part is true -- we need slots to balance the budget and boost public education -- then let's have the referendum in a special election next month. The argument sounds downright wholesome. I say let the voters decide. Only fraidy-cat politicians would be against that.

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