In just the past two months, the nation's ailing economy has spiraled downward in a wild and unprecedented fashion. Stock values have swung alarmingly. And the subprime lending mess has left financial markets nearly toppled. In Washington, more than $1 trillion has been approved for interventions of unprecedented scale and scope - and yet a genuine recovery is not yet in sight.
In Maryland, the recession has worsened to a degree experts could not have forecast six months ago. Falling tax revenues have forced Gov. Martin O'Malley to squeeze hundreds of millions of dollars in spending from the state budget. And there is a growing fear that even larger cuts will be required, a move that could greatly endanger the state's recent progress in public education.
Under these arduous conditions, Maryland voters will be asked on Nov. 4 whether to approve a constitutional amendment allowing the development of slot machine gambling parlors containing a total of up to 15,000 one-armed bandits at five specified locations across the state. At stake is an estimated $600 million or more annually in badly needed new revenue.
From the constitutional amendment approving a first-ever state lottery in 1972 to every subsequent proposal to legalize slot machines in recent years, this newspaper has consistently opposed gambling as the wrong way to finance government. Not only as an unfair and regressive tax on the poor and working class, but because slots can be highly addictive and too often become a destructive influence on communities.
But these are extraordinary times. Without new revenue, Marylanders face truly unacceptable choices. Public education and health care for the disadvantaged represent the majority of state spending and therefore cannot be held harmless in this cash-strapped environment. Both will soon suffer as budget cuts grow deeper and deeper. The prospect of higher taxes is just as ruinous an alternative if in raising taxes the government winds up dampening prospects for economic recovery.
As a result, voters should approve Question 2 and ratify the referendum on slot machines, technically called video lottery terminals.
While the bulk of slots revenue won't be forthcoming for several years, some benefits will be felt immediately. Knowing that slots revenue can eventually be tapped will allow the state to dip into cash reserves that gambling should eventually replenish.It also provides new hope for Maryland's beleaguered horse racing industry in the form of subsidies that can preserve hundreds of jobs and help keep horse farmers and breeders in business, perhaps even slowing the pace of relentless subdivisions and suburban sprawl.
This is a difficult decision that is certainly made no easier by the frequently misleading statements of slots advocates who rarely, if ever, acknowledge the risks associated with expanded gambling. While opponents have sometimes overstated these problems, the concerns over addiction, bankruptcy, family dissolution and crime are well-justified.
Lawmakers have already agreed to set aside money for treatment of gambling addicts, but much more will need to be done to ameliorate the adverse impact of legalized slot machines. Maryland is home to the pre-eminent Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and its experts should be enlisted in this cause.
Among other things, the state will need to find out what, if any, harm slots parlors do to businesses that lack the competitive advantage of state-sanctioned gambling. Officials must also be prepared to monitor gamblers to find out whether the slots establishments are attracting customers who would otherwise be headed to casinos in Pennsylvania, West Virginia or Delaware, or if the state is spurring people to gamble who can ill afford to do so.
Make no mistake, Governor O'Malley and lawmakers will still need to make further reductions in spending to offset falling tax revenue as the recession continues. Many of these choices will no doubt be painful. But without slots revenue, the alternatives are few, and they would too greatly harm the quality of life to be countenanced.