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Slots offer only false promises, hardship

The Baltimore Sun

Here's a question related to the never-ending saga of Democrats trying to nominate a candidate for president. It's a question about the never-ending saga of slots:

When Marylanders go to the polls in November to say yes or no to slot machines, will they be as savvy as voters in Indiana and North Carolina, who apparently turned aside the gas tax moratorium proposed by Sen. Hillary Clinton?

Both slots and gasoline prices, of course, are pocketbook issues that have inspired their share of political pandering.

The gas tax issue didn't give Mrs. Clinton the big wins she had to have among Tar Heels and Hoosiers. Of course, there were other reasons for the choices people made, but this one - what Sen. Barack Obama derides as a "gimmick" - is what she stressed in the days leading up to the vote.

Slots advocates in Maryland will, no doubt, have similar labels for the coming referendum on whether to establish slot machine gambling here.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and most of the Democratic establishment are now slots lobbyists. In the past, he has been noticeably conflicted about the issue. He's called slots a poor way to pay for education. At the same time, he's said he could live with the machines at racetracks.

Now the having-it-both-ways moment is over. He has declared unconditional support for the referendum, which will be on the ballot this November in the form of a constitutional amendment.

The governor apparently concluded he had no choice. The General Assembly is unlikely to even consider more tax increases after passing an array of new or increased levies last fall. But the state continues to spend more money - for whatever purpose - than legislators have been willing to pay for.

Nor will it be possible for any of these forces to hide the potential damage slots could do. The governor will face a practiced army of adversaries, both anonymous and well-known, between now and the vote.

Many ministers, for example, oppose more gambling. Families in danger of losing their houses in this season of foreclosure could find that Mom or Dad has gambled away the mortgage money. The clergy know they'll be asked for help.

Aaron Meisner, a veteran slots opponent, says a minister from Montgomery County approached him after one of the successful anti-slots campaigns of recent years to say: "Thanks for your work. You've saved a lot of lives."

Mr. Meisner just wanted to save his neighborhood. A resident of Mount Washington in Baltimore, he joined the "anti" forces in 2002 when he worried that slots were coming to Pimlico, just across the road from his house. The menace he saw in Mount Washington would be poised to descend on neighborhoods across the state, he thought.

"I'm a sucker. I think you have to give something back. You're called to serve in this life," he said.

Answering this call, he said, puts him in opposition to Governor O'Malley, whom he worked hard to elect. He recognizes the governor's difficult political position, but he offers no quarter.

"He may be willing to sacrifice his core beliefs. I'm not," he said.

Mr. Meisner has become what he calls a "slots geek." He has drilled deeply into the claims of the advocates and finds most of them misleading or simply wrong. Those who think slots will rescue a state's budget should look at New Jersey, which, notwithstanding the gambling palaces of Atlantic City, has a $32 billion deficit.

He argues also that changing the state constitution to permit gambling transforms government into a predator. The only way for government to win with gambling is for the citizens to lose, he says.

A "yes" vote on slots would be like the proposed gas tax moratorium: The reputed benefits are overstated, the potential damage permanent. Once slots are enshrined in the constitution - and the budget - Maryland itself will become the most intractable of gambling addicts.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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