African-Americans in Maryland support legalizing slot machines at the state's racetracks - but by a narrower margin than whites - according to a poll done for the Legislative Black Caucus.
Poll results were released at the same time a separate survey finds anti-gambling forces closing the gap with proponents of slots, turning the issue into a statistical dead heat.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed installing 3,500 slot machines at each of three Central Maryland racetracks, as well as 1,000 machines at a track to be built in Allegany County. Although his original and revised plans have been roundly criticized, a rewritten version of the measure is expected to return to the full Senate this week.
The black caucus poll, which focused on the state's 10 majority-black legislative districts, showed that African-Americans in those areas support slots at the tracks by 51 percent to 45 percent, compared with 56 percent to 42 percent among whites in the same districts.
The caucus commissioned the poll to give data to its members on how their constituents feel about the issue, but it has drawbacks as a statewide gauge. It does not reflect the views of African-Americans who live in predominantly white suburbs, and the white voters who live in black districts do not necessarily reflect the views of whites in other parts of the state.
The poll, taken by Penn Schoen and Berland Associates, was being read with interest by African-American legislators, however, because it focuses on their constituents.
The statewide Gonzales-Arscott poll was giving encouragement to gambling opponents that their message is being heard. The poll, released this week, shows the margin in favor of slots narrowing to a 2-point margin, 47 percent to 45 percent, compared with 46 percent to 37 percent in August 2002. The gap falls within the poll's statistical margin of error.
"For anyone to claim there's a mandate for slots, the polling data shows that's not true," said Minor Carter, lobbyist for an anti-casino group. "There's not a mandate for or against them."
The margin in favor of slots increases when people are told the revenue will be dedicated to education - as it is in the governor's bill.
In most of the districts surveyed in the caucus poll, the proportion of blacks who said they travel out of state to gamble is 10 percentage points greater than whites.
Among the findings in the black caucus poll is that voters in majority-black Prince George's County districts are more favorably disposed toward slots than those in predominantly African-American districts in the Baltimore area.
In all the city districts polled, strong opposition was found to proposals for casino gambling at the Inner Harbor.
The survey shows wide disparities among the six Baltimore-area districts polled - helping explain the differing messages African-American lawmakers are sending on the issue.
In Northwest Baltimore's 41st District, which includes Pimlico Race Course, the public backs slots 52 percent to 44 percent. "It's clear the will of the community is to do this - even in the district that hosts the racetrack," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who represents the 41st.
In that district, a majority of black voters favor slots, while a majority of whites oppose them. By contrast, in Northeast Baltimore's 43rd District, white voters tend to favor slots while black voters oppose them.