Leggett's Strategy On Slots: Hushed

County Executive Isiah Leggett is worried about tax increases.
County Executive Isiah Leggett is worried about tax increases. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has been quietly urging local lawmakers to take a low profile in the statewide debate over slot machine gambling even though polls have shown repeatedly that county residents are the state's most ardent opponents.

Leggett's decision to lower the decibel level on slots marks a new approach for Montgomery Democrats in a debate that for years has divided state political leaders. The payback, Leggett hopes, would be a state budget package that plugs an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall without making Montgomery residents shoulder what county leaders say would be a disproportionate share of the costs.

"Personally, I oppose slots," Leggett (D) said recently when asked to confirm that he had shifted the county's strategy. "But in the context of where we are today, everything is on the table."

Leggett made his pitch on slots to Montgomery legislators and County Council members at a July 30 meeting in his Rockville office, which was not on his public schedule. Leggett confirmed in an interview that he asked the county's elected officials to keep quiet about slots and to limit any comments on an income-tax increase. He said he believes such a tax increase could disproportionately hurt Montgomery, where the locally imposed "piggyback" income tax is among the state's highest.

Some people at the meeting objected, saying they considered slots to be an unfair tax on the poor that would do little to fix systemic budget problems plaguing Maryland, according to several of those who attended.

"Everybody has to acknowledge that slots have a regressive economic effect," said state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who was at the meeting. "It is like a tax on large numbers of less-affluent people. At least, the ones who aren't lucky."

Leggett said he understood those concerns but thought that the state's economic situation and its likely impact on the county budget were so severe that it would be a better strategy to hold back slots opposition until the elements of a budget deal were clear.

That strategy is far different from that of his predecessor, Douglas M. Duncan (D), who frequently bashed slots and used the issue to distinguish himself from Gov. Martin O'Malley when they were competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Duncan dropped out of the race before last September's primary.

A majority of the county legislative delegation has opposed slots consistently. In 2005, when the Maryland House of Delegates last voted on a slots proposal, 20 Montgomery Democrats voted against it and three of the county's Democrats and one Republican voted in favor.

Whether the Leggett approach gets results for Montgomery won't be clear until state leaders craft a tax and spending package to prevent the budget shortfall, which could come as soon as next month.

Leggett's strategy could have benefits for Montgomery, which could mute its opposition to slots with little immediate local impact. Under almost any scenario, Montgomery would not become a site for slots, which are expected, at least initially, to be placed at racetracks. Montgomery has none.

But the strategy also has political risks, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based consulting firm that has polled on slots for the past decade.

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