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Slots decision is a win for referendum proponents

The Baltimore Sun

A legal challenge to proposed ballot language for November's slot-machine referendum has mostly failed, although yesterday the state's highest court upheld a lower court's order to add one word to the hotly contested question.

Last week, a panel of Anne Arundel Circuit Court judges ruled that the proposed ballot language was misleading but could be fixed by adding a single word to clarify that state education programs would be the primary and not sole recipients of anticipated revenues.

Yesterday, the seven-judge Court of Appeals affirmed that decision and ordered the plaintiffs to pay court costs.

"I think this is the death knell for challenges to the vote in November," said Austin C. Schlick, the attorney general's office's chief of litigation, who argued the case on behalf of the state. "It's good that the court has removed uncertainty surrounding the ballot and given the state time to know what the language will be."

Aaron Meisner, the head of one of two anti-slots groups that sued the state over the ballot language, said he was disappointed at the high court's ruling, which came several hours after the panel heard morning arguments. "I have to say I'm kind of surprised, given the tone of the questions that were being asked."

"It's an unfortunate decision," Meisner said. "Anybody who has any understanding of the situation knows that the question is misleading and that adding the word primary is a vague half-measure solution that doesn't really make the question any less misleading to the average voter."

At the heart of the opponents' argument was that ballot language drafted by the secretary of state misrepresents the initiative because it does not mention that slots revenue will subsidize the horse racing industry and benefit gambling interests. The constitutional amendment would legalize 15,000 slot machines at five locations across the state.

Secretary of State John P. McDonough issued a statement yesterday welcoming the high court's decision, saying it largely affirmed his duty to adhere to the text of the referendum bill passed by the General Assembly in 2007. That bill also says the primary purpose of the constitutional amendment is to create an education trust fund.

A companion bill that goes into effect if voters approve the slots package describes the other recipients of slots revenue, among them major subsidies to the horse racing industry.

During a spirited hearing, the appellate court judges appeared to be contemplating additional changes to the ballot language, producing optimism among slots opponents. But at the end of the day, it was the pro-slots camp that had occasion to celebrate.

Frederick W. Puddester, chairman of a pro-slots ballot committee, said his group considered court approval "with only a one-word change" to be "a victory."

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