No matter where one stands on slot machine gambling in Maryland, it's essential that voters hear all sides of the issue before making a decision at the ballot box next fall. The brouhaha over whether or not slots opponents ought to get exhibition space at the Maryland State Fair this summer is troubling for any number of reasons but particularly to the extent that it undermines this effort to inform.
While the state fair may have no legal obligation to provide space to any particular political cause - it is, after all, owned and operated by a private, nonprofit organization - it and other fairs have a long history as forums for political campaigning.
Initially, fair officials said they would allow slots opponents to have space only if pro-slots forces set up a booth too. The organization's pro-slots bias is understandable: The measure to legalize 15,000 machines at a handful of locations statewide would benefit not only horse racing generally but also Timonium specifically as it includes a $5 million grant to renovate the fair's aging harness racing grandstand.
Apparently sensing the hoofbeats of an unhappy public reaction (free speech still has its own fan base), officials changed course yesterday and announced plans to offer both sides of the slots debate the minimum 10-foot-by-10-foot space in the fair's exhibition hall.
Nevertheless, the episode underscores the difficulties slots opponents face when so much of the political establishment is arrayed against them, from a sitting governor and legislative majority to horse-racing interests, and most every entity that depends on state funding, from contractors to school system employees. In other words, they're up against everyone lined up to feed at the trough should the referendum prevail.
An anti-slots lobbyist likened this to David against Goliath, but it's actually worse. David was allowed his slingshot and room to operate it. When the arguments against expanded slot machine gambling are muffled, in Timonium or elsewhere across the state, the public is the lesser for it.