Good timing for bad move

The Baltimore Sun

My friend Elizabeth, who used to clean my office, would occasionally ask what I was doing on the coming weekend. I'd respond, and then ask her the same question. Sometimes she'd smile a little mischievously and say, "I'm going up to Delaware to donate."

She was going to spend some quality time with slot machines. She had her modest $100 budget and, she said, she never went beyond it. She just liked to play.

She knew very well she'd be losing most of the time. She'd be helping Delaware finance school construction or road building or something else that Delaware taxpayers theoretically wouldn't have to pay for as long as she and others bore the cost.

The image of a Marylander donating to Delaware has been invoked in vain over the years as slots proponents attempted to get slots legalized in the Free State.

It hasn't worked. Governors and lawmakers couldn't find the right proposal, or they wouldn't accept a less-than-perfect bill, or there was disgust at measures that seemed to enrich certain individuals.

Tired of the issue, the General Assembly has agreed to let the voters decide. Opposition forces may be determined to kill slots once and for all this year, but several factors may push Marylanders to risk the potential damage slots may cause:

* A Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, has mobilized his election team on slots' behalf. The success of his first term may rest on the $700 million a year that slots are expected to yield once they are "mature" - up and running.

* On Nov. 4, we'll be electing a new president. Turnout is likely to be very high, including among those who would rather "donate" in Maryland.

* Slots in Maryland would cut gas costs incurred driving to Delaware, West Virginia or Pennsylvania, surrounding states with slots.

* State officials say painful budget cuts will be needed unless slots revenue starts to flow. No one is surprised to hear such predictions from the pro-slots side. But Maryland has been cutting and economizing for a half-dozen years. There are few, if any, painless options remaining.

* The General Assembly - not to mention the governor - has no appetite for a new round of tax increases. Taxes were increased last November in a special legislative session, and Mr. O'Malley's approval rating fell off the table. Since then, last year's effort has looked much better. Maryland rebalanced the disparity between spending and revenue - the structural deficit. Had no action been taken, the recession's downdraft would be even more unsettling.

As an alternative, an anti-slots group in Montgomery County suggested needed revenue might be raised through higher taxes on services, on alcohol and on corporations. Ideally, this is the right way to address the recession-driven shortfall. In reality, new or increased taxes won't happen.

The governor's forces must now marshal their arguments. Opponents will say that with gambling, citizens must lose for the government to win. They will deplore the spectacle of government working to attract "players." They will predict that, far from solving our financial problems, slots will undermine the necessary willingness to pay taxes for public education, adequate prisons, driveable roads and public safety.

Governor O'Malley has had a deliberately muted role in pushing the slots issue. He may hope for passage, but the issue puts him in the position of opposing the wishes of a substantial number of Marylanders.

A recent poll by Gonzales Research shows less-than-majority support for slots. Another poll, conducted by the O'Malley team, shows the issue in fairly good shape, with 58 percent of the sample in favor and 38 percent opposed.

I know how my friend Elizabeth will vote. She's a very generous person - and she'd rather "donate" to her home state. If all slots players were like her, we'd have less to worry about.

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

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