Maximize the take

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A NEW STUDY of how best to join the parade toward slot machine gambling shows once again the wisdom of waiting. The study found that allowing corporations to compete for the right to build and operate slots palaces would generate as much as $500 million more a year than putting them at racetracks.

This finding suggests once again that House Speaker Michael E. Busch was right to block the racetrack option in favor of a carefully considered survey of the alternatives. A House Ways and Means Committee study will provide even more data to be considered before Maryland launches itself on a quest for the gambling dollar.

Slots and casinos will always be a risky -- and we think ill-advised -- reach for more revenue to finance schools and other important state functions. If they are approved, taxpayers will feel less need to pay for government services via taxes. Fiscal experts warn, moreover, that Maryland is well behind in its effort to erase a built-in budget deficit estimated now at $600 million for the budget Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must present to the General Assembly in January. Slots alone won't solve the problem, in the short run at least.

All the more reason, if Maryland is to take the plunge toward slots and casino table games, to get it right.

The Maryland Tax Education Foundation and the Maryland Public Policy Institute, whose members worked together on the study, concluded that competition in the marketplace would produce more money than any of the approaches offered so far. They found that the tracks-based legislation thrown together on the fly by the state Senate during this year's legislative session would have offered a much lower return. Fortunately, the House of Delegates rejected the Senate bill, killing it in committee.

The improved picture if corporations or even the state ran these gambling dens would be dramatic, the study found. Payments for expenses and profit would fall from an estimated 39 percent under the Senate bill to as low as 21.5 percent.

Speaker Busch has floated a proposal in which the Maryland Stadium Authority would borrow money to build the facilities; the machines would be leased and maintained by the Maryland Lottery; and a private vendor would manage the buildings. Other ideas will surely surface.

Governor Ehrlich has said he will not take the lead on slots legislation this year, having seen his proposal rejected during the last session. He reportedly still favors racetracks as venues, perhaps because he wants to help the racing industry. But surely helping the horse industry -- which The Sun does support -- could be handled by setting aside some slots revenue.

Everyone should keep an open mind. The best option would be to resist slots altogether. But if they are to be adopted -- preferably, by the voters in a referendum -- the goal should be a clean, efficient operation that produces the most revenue.

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