Slots gain favor; most want state to keep all proceeds


Slightly more than half of Maryland voters favor allowing slot machine gambling in the state, but they are divided about where slots should be located and aren't keen on the proceeds being used to prop up horse racing, according to the poll.

Among those surveyed, 52 percent favor allowing slots in Maryland - up from 48 percent in last year's poll - and 39 percent said they were opposed.

One measure of the popularity of the gambling devices: A quarter of those who were surveyed said they had traveled outside the state during the past year to play slots. Supporters of slots say that spending should be kept in the state.

By a 10-to-1 margin, voters say they prefer that the state keep all proceeds from slots rather than giving "millions of dollars to help the horse racing industry," according to the poll.

Legislation proposed by the governor last year would have resulted in an estimated $27 million a year of slots money going to purses, which are paid to the owners of top-finishing horses in each race. Industry leaders said it was inadequate - and one has recently suggested the annual slots subsidy needs to be as high as $70 million to $100 million.

Among those surveyed, 39 percent said slots should be confined to horse racing tracks, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed last year. But 32 percent said slots should be kept away from urban areas - which would exclude such sites as Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

There was little support for slots at major tourist destinations, such as Baltimore Inner Harbor. Only 16 percent favor slots at such venues, according to the poll.

Overall, voters give the matter a low priority relative to schools, jobs and other challenges. When asked to name the issue they most wanted lawmakers to address, only 2 percent said passing a slots bill.

However, the poll shows that there continues to be "overwhelming support for slots," said Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich. "Everywhere Governor Ehrlich goes, he runs into people and the message is twofold and it's simple: Bring slot machines to Maryland and don't raise taxes," Schurick said.

W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for a coalition of anti-slots groups, said he doesn't interpret the poll results as "a strong indication that people want slots" in Maryland.

He said people have different images about how a slots program would be implemented and are reacting without knowing key details. "To me, it's like saying does everybody like ice cream, but there are a lot of flavors."

Carter said the poll's finding that support for slots tends to be highest among voters who are the least educated ought to be troubling to state policy-makers. "It's clear that the more educated you are, the more you realize they are called one-armed bandits for a reason," he said.

Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said: "I think the public sentiment right now is [slots] may in fact be both at racetracks and other locations."

Bowman suggested the wording of the poll question about aid to the industry skewed the response.

"The way it was worded, it appears that this is simply a handout and that there will be no residual value back to the citizens," he said. "But the fact is that the horse industry overall - agriculture and racing - present a huge economic base to the state."

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