Md. voters give OK to 15,000 slots

Marylanders voted overwhelmingly yesterday to legalize slot-machine gambling in the state after a rancorous campaign, dealing Gov. Martin O'Malley a ballot-box success and settling a debate over which politicians had deadlocked for years.

The constitutional amendment to allow 15,000 slot machines at five locations around the state appeared headed for easy passage late last night.

O'Malley, a Democrat, championed slots as a way to plug the state's budget shortfalls, made worse by a declining economy, while opponents argued that expanding gambling would invite crime and addiction into the most vulnerable communities and burden taxpayers with increased social costs. The final say fell to voters after state lawmakers decided last year to punt the decision to a referendum.

Voter opinions varied from liberal, anti-slots enclaves in the Washington suburbs to parts of Baltimore City that were more receptive to gambling and to rural areas where workers in the horse-racing industry said their jobs depend on slots revenue earmarked for purses. Many voters also had a personal stake in the outcome of the referendum because casinos could be built in or near their neighborhoods.

The slots proposal won wide support regardless of demographics such as age, sex, race, income and party affiliation, according to exit polls. The survey was conducted by Edison Media Research for a consortium of media outlets including The Baltimore Sun. Results are based on 997 interviews with voters upon leaving 20 polling places.

Other factors did appear to sway voters. Those who said they were very worried about the national economy and those with young children were more likely to back slots. Support was higher among those with a high school degree than among those with more education. Many voters said they had mixed feelings about the proposal.

Frank O'Connor, 84, a Catholic priest from Mount Vernon, said he supported slots because the gambling initiative seemed like "a decent way to raise more for state expenses." The Democrat said the decision was a "complicated" one for him because of the moral and material hazards of addiction. The anti-slots Maryland Catholic Conference told its faithful last month to make up their own minds on the issue rather than be bound by edict.

"I made a judgment call, and I'll live with it," O'Connor said.

In an interview at a Democratic celebration in Baltimore, O'Malley expressed satisfaction that the slots measure garnered approval "in every part of our state." He said the slots plan, which is expected to generate more than $600 million for the state's treasury, will put Maryland in a "much better condition to navigate this economic downturn."

Slots opponents had a separate post-election event across town. "For me, it's been a long fight, and it's a bitter defeat," said W. Minor Carter, who has worked with Stop Slots Maryland for several years. "I take it on faith that the proposal that they put before the voters will not be changed to the benefit of slots operators. If this was a bait and a switch, I think the voters of Maryland deserve a recount."

Slots licenses will be awarded by competitive bid for five locations: Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany counties.

The referendum culminates a months-long campaign in which pro-slots forces, heavily financed by would-be casino operators, outspent gambling foes by a margin of more than $4 million at last count.

That financial advantage enabled the ballot committee backing slots to blanket radio and television airwaves with ads and to field an army of hundreds of door-knockers to fan out across the state with a carefully scripted message that passage of slots would aid public schools and prevent additional tax increases.

Opponents also produced mass media advertisements, but they relied more on a grass-roots operation that included church meetings and community rallies - and a message of moral outrage.

Both campaigns had sought to capitalize on associations with Barack Obama, who handily defeated Republican John McCain in Maryland.

Pro-slots volunteers handed out placards at polling places featuring a picture of Obama and the slogan "Vote for Question 2," the slots proposal on the ballot, while opponents distributed fliers invoking Obama's past criticism of gambling.

Some voters said they worried about the impact of slots on their communities.

Nybia Snowden, 30, a real estate agent from mid-town Baltimore, compared gambling to a drug and said she worried about the impact of problem gambling on families and children. "Putting slots here in Baltimore could do a lot more damage than it would do good," she said.

Erica Harris, 39, who lives near the Laurel Park horse racing track that's expected to bid for a slots license, said she initially thought it might be fun to have a slots casino so close, though she doesn't gamble. But she said her friends and family changed her mind with arguments that slots would bring more robberies and wouldn't generate money for education for several years.

"I thought Delaware and West Virginia have slots so close, so why not here if it will bring positive change?" Harris said. "But they changed my mind."

But the decision to vote "yes" on Question 2 was an easy one for Jeremiah Wilkes, 26, a paralegal at a Baltimore law firm who enjoys playing the slots and would welcome the convenience of having them in South Baltimore. A local casino would save him from traveling several times a year to Delaware and Atlantic City, N.J., he said.

For Wilkes, a Charles Village resident, the appeal of slot-machine gambling is the "instant gratification" the lottery can't provide. "Just the thrill of taking a chance, pulling the lever, hoping this will be time to win," he said, smiling.

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