Rhetoric heating in slots battle

The Baltimore Sun

The statewide battle over a November referendum that would legalize slot machine gambling in Maryland heated up yesterday with sniping between Gov. Martin O'Malley, the ballot measure's chief proponent, and Comptroller Peter Franchot, an outspoken opponent.

The rhetoric is a preview to what is shaping up as a debate that will span the next seven months until voters decide on a constitutional amendment that would authorize slots. Not only are O'Malley and Franchot staking out sides, but so are a host of other politicos, clergy and business leaders who are casting the slots fight in broad terms and as one of high stakes.

As an anti-slots coalition prepared yesterday to unveil an Internet ad and a list of supporters tapped to agitate against the ballot measure, O'Malley rebuked Franchot for what he called a "hypocritical" stance on the issue. Hours later, Franchot responded by condemning the governor for raising taxes by $1.3 billion in bad economic times.

O'Malley, a Democrat, backs slots as a way to bring revenue to the budget-strapped state and to pay for several of his spending initiatives. Slots would raise roughly one-fourth of the money needed to plug the state's structural deficit.

Franchot, a Democrat who has become a leading political opponent of the governor, says that expanded gambling could ruin Maryland's character.

"The comptroller has had the wonderful luxury of sitting back and doing nothing to help us restore fiscal responsibility while throwing stones in a hypocritical way at the one piece of this, the 25 percent that is slots," O'Malley said, noting that Franchot once backed slots while serving in the legislature.

"He's not at all ever troubled by his inherent contradictions," O'Malley added.

Franchot said the slots battle would not be about "any one person," but later his office released a statement from spokesman Joseph Shapiro calling O'Malley's statement "regrettable."

"It is highly unusual for a sitting governor to attack another statewide official, especially a member of his own party," Shapiro said.

Franchot had some fiery words of his own, criticizing the governor and the General Assembly for raising taxes and putting slots on the ballot through legislation passed during last year's special session. Lawmakers and the governor also cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget but approved new environmental and health programs.

"Working families in Maryland are feeling this added financial burden," Franchot said. "Now they're faced with yet another, more regressive tax, a levy known as slot machine gambling."

As a state delegate representing Montgomery County, Franchot co-sponsored a bill in 1998 that called for a constitutional amendment authorizing slots at up to 10 locations, but the legislation died in committee. He voted against a bill in 2005 that would have allowed the machines and has said that his position evolved after he studied the issue.

Both sides traded the "hypocrite" label. Slots opponents noted that O'Malley once called gambling a "morally bankrupt" way to fund education, although he campaigned for governor on a plan allowing limited slots at Maryland racetracks.

If the referendum passes, it would allow 15,000 slot machines at five locations: one each in Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties. A Sun poll conducted early this year found that 56 percent of likely voters support the measure, though an equally strong majority opposes using state funds to subsidize Maryland's beleaguered horse racing industry. More than $100 million of the slots revenue would be directed to the industry under the plan that lawmakers crafted in the special session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime supporter of slots, warned that without the added revenue the state would be forced to make deep budget cuts in education and public safety, because "there is no political will whatsoever to raise any additional taxes between now and the next election." Miller also lambasted Franchot for not being "a team player."

"Franchot knows he's not going to be the one to have to make the cuts, so he can look back and say, 'Tsk, tsk,'" Miller said. "He'll always be on the outside throwing gas on the flames."

The anti-slots camp organized under the ballot committee Marylanders United to Stop Slots held a rally yesterday at an Annapolis church. The group's steering committee includes Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, a Democrat; Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican; Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; and more than a dozen state lawmakers.

The event revealed much of the substance and style they will employ in the coming months to defeat the ballot measure.

A white Dodge Caravan parked outside the church had a giant shark strapped to the hood and a message that called slots parlors "predatory." The committee also distributed an Internet ad that pokes fun at how the November referendum would amend the Maryland Constitution.

The ad begins with violins and the drumbeat of patriotic music and shows a scroll of archaic-looking paper that says: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, and establish SLOT MACHINE GAMBLING through the state of Maryland, do hereby ... Wait! What?" The music then blurs into the sound of Vegas-style gambling devices with the clinks of quarters.

Despite the levity, slots opponents expressed serious reservations about social ills they say often accompany legalized gambling, such as increased crime and addiction. Franchot, who attended the event, characterized supporters of the gambling industry as "enablers" of addicts, and religious leaders made biblical references to gambling as a sin.

The Rev. Jonathan Weaver, founder and president of Collective Banking Group Inc., characterized gambling as "evil." The nonprofit, with more than 100 member churches that represent 200,000 parishioners, has been credited with helping to defeat slots legislation in 2005 in Maryland.

"We are already engaged in ministry helping people against various forms of addiction, be it alcoholism or against drug abuse," said Weaver, of the Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church. "The last thing that we need to do is to find that our church has become overwhelmed by other persons that are engaged in slot machine gambling."

Barbara Knickelbein, President of NO Casino Maryland, urged fellow opponents to "go for the jugular" in the fight against slots and to "pound the nails in the coffin" of efforts to expand gambling in the state.

"Let's go for the kill," she said.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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