Ten months before Maryland voters will decide whether to legalize slot machines, a strong majority is in favor of expanding gambling across the state, a new Sun poll found.
Fifty-six percent of likely voters support amending the Maryland Constitution to authorize 15,000 slot machines in five jurisdictions, the poll found. Just over one-third of the respondents said they oppose slots.
However, an equally strong majority opposes using state funds to subsidize Maryland's beleaguered horse racing industry, a major component of the plan that lawmakers crafted in a November special session of the General Assembly.
In interviews, supporters said the prospect of losing revenue to nearby states with gambling parlors drove their decisions. Many said they would rather see slots than higher taxes.
"I see all the money leaving here and going to Delaware, going to West Virginia," said Barry Williams, 55, a West Baltimore resident and registered Democrat. "Those states aren't crying as much as we are about their financial situation."
The statewide opinion poll was conducted Jan. 6-9 and surveyed 904 likely voters. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
After five years of bitter deadlock in Annapolis over the slots question, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, persuaded the General Assembly in November to let voters settle the issue.
That sets up a yearlong public campaign over the expansion of gambling, which many opponents say would amount to an immoral tax on the poor.
"The slots are wrong, that's just all there is to it," said Charlotte Landis, 81, of Cumberland.
Rising taxes and food costs have straining her fixed income of roughly $1,080 per month. But the widow said she would prefer higher taxes to slot machines, out of concern that some people might become addicted to slots and neglect their families.
"It'll take money away from people that really need it," Landis said. "It might help the state, but it won't help the people."
If passed, the slots amendment would allow betting machines at five sites: one each in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
Lawmakers and the governor are counting on about $600 million in slots revenue to help compensate for a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall and to support new spending for health care, roads and the environment.
The plan would also give as much as $100 million a year to the struggling horseracing industry.
While slots supporters outnumbered opponents in all regions except Western Maryland, only 32 percent of poll respondents said they favor spending state money on the horseracing industry; 56 percent were opposed.
"Horseracing is obviously important to this state, but using one gambling thing to prop up another is pushing it," said Deborah Kendall-Sipple, a pro-slots Democrat from Ellicott City.
Ronald Johnson, 66, a retired Naval Academy gardener living in Annapolis, said he hoped slots would help preserve the state's equestrian culture: "Racetracks are a traditional Maryland thing."
The strongest support for the racing industry comes from Baltimore County, home to many breeders and horse farms, as well as the nexus of the horsey social set. The region least enamored of giving gambling proceeds to the racing industry is Prince George's County, where 65 percent of respondents disapproved of racing subsidies.
Regardless, racing will almost certainly play a major role in the debate over the referendum. In a letter yesterday to members, Greater Baltimore Committee President Don Fry warned: "According to sources in the racing industry, it's possible that Maryland could lose the Preakness if slots are not ratified."
Apart from the racing question, the poll shows broad support for slots across party, demographic and geographic lines. Among religious groups, only evangelical Christians indicated support below 50 percent.
The poll also found that pro-slots sentiment is strong despite widespread voter belief that authorizing limited gambling in November would open the door to further expansion and to full-scale casinos in Maryland.
Only one in five voters believe slots will ultimately be confined to the five jurisdictions authorized by the constitutional amendment, and more than half of the respondents said their position on the issue would not change if slots were coming to their communities. More than 45 percent said they expect that legalizing slots would lead to casinos in Maryland.
A panel convened by Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon recently recommended establishing a full-scale casino in the city as a way to reduce property taxes.
O'Malley, who professes a personal ambivalence about state-sanctioned gambling, has said that wouldn't happen while he is governor.
Steven L. Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the polling firm that conducted the survey for The Sun, said the steadily rising support for expanded gambling coincided with the advocacy of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The Republican former governor failed to pass slots legislation during his four years in office, but he appears to have persuaded Marylanders with misgivings about gambling to view it as a competitive economic necessity, Raabe said.
About three years ago, only 47 percent of likely voters supported slots in a Sun poll. In the newspaper's 1998 poll, just 39 percent of respondents were in favor of putting slots at racetracks.
"Ehrlich was able to move the whole slots question a good 10 points at least," Raabe said. The heightened public acceptance for gambling leaves slots opponents in a difficult position leading up to the November referendum. But their campaign could benefit from some high-profile supporters, such as Comptroller Peter Franchot, and possibly from funding by gambling interests in neighboring states that might be hurt by competition in Maryland.
Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of StopSlots Maryland, said the poll results show that anti-slots forces have a "tough fight" ahead but added that the campaign to change public opinion has not yet begun in earnest. He noted that the past several public votes on gambling in other states have failed.
"I think 56 percent is not a very daunting number," Meisner said.
Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.