Amid competing agendas, slots just not worth it

The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN CITY -- Here are the vital facts you need to know about Hale Harrison, hotelier and small businessman from Ocean City: His family traces its Maryland roots back to 1690 and has been in the hotel business since 1951; he co-owns 10 motels and hotels in the area; and for the past 30 years he's had one position on bringing slots gambling to Maryland:

Don't do it.

Last week, at all of Mr. Harrison's hotels, several of which are located along the oldest, boardwalked section at the city's southern end, the "vacancy/no vacancy" signs also offered a polite but firm injunction: "No slots in Maryland, period."

The message was aimed at the political heavies, from Gov. Martin O'Malley on down, in town here for the annual Maryland Association of Counties meeting.

What's interesting about many in Ocean City's small business crowd, as The Sun's Andrew Green and Chris Guy reported, is that they not only don't want slots in their town - they don't want them anywhere else in Maryland either.

Businessmen like Mr. Harrison don't want slots in Ocean City because they say their presence will destroy the local economy and community. And they don't want them elsewhere in the state because doing so would almost certainly draw some tourists away, especially if the nearby Ocean Downs raceway is an approved slots location. Fewer tourists means fewer hotel rooms rented, meals served, inflatable rafts sold and midnight Jell-O shots consumed.

"If they get slots anywhere, they'll spend the next 30 years trying to expand it," says Mr. Harrison, who says he supports Governor O'Malley on most every other issue. "It's a financial narcotic."

During his term, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Mr. O'Malley's predecessor, spent a lot of political capital trying to move several versions of a slots bill through the General Assembly, to no avail. He and other Republicans now complain that their efforts were thwarted precisely to deprive Mr. Ehrlich of a political victory before his re-election bid - and there's some truth to that.

But slots were just as bad an idea during Mr. Ehrlich's term as they are now, under Mr. O'Malley.

For one thing, as I wrote in these pages in 2003, Maryland's gambling approach is backward: The state already has scratch-offs and Keno, and moving to slots next instead of sports book betting or casino table games would continue a pattern of taxing those at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder first. (A major casino chain shared an internal study that showed that gamblers who play table games or bet on sporting events have higher incomes on average than those who play slots or the ponies, who in turn have higher average incomes than those who favor scratch-offs or Keno.)

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the union. Sure, it would be nice to recover revenues lost to neighboring states, but Maryland's problem is not a lack of wealth but a lack of will.

The state's structural deficit means that spending priorities outpace revenues. If Marylanders want the money to continue to invest in and develop their state - such as the Thornton Commission education goals - they should pay more in taxes. Alternatively, they can decide what programs they want to eliminate. Even in the Free State there are no free lunches.

Further complicating the slots issue is that you have too many groups promoting their individual agendas, with little if any regard for the state's fiscal solvency.

The horse racing industry is a common target, and rightly so: Slots would help prop up an industry that is simply not as popular as it was a half-century ago. But the same complaint could be lodged against Mr. Harrison and other small business people in affected communities who are opposing slots for self-interested reasons.

Amid all this conflict - and given that even if slots were approved tomorrow, the revenues would take some time to generate and then would provide only a partial solution to the structural deficit - slots just aren't worth the trouble.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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