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Majority For Slots In Md. Increases

Support for Gov. Martin O'Malley, shown with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, left, was lackluster in a poll, with 53 percent approving of the job he has done.
Support for Gov. Martin O'Malley, shown with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, left, was lackluster in a poll, with 53 percent approving of the job he has done. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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By John Wagner and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

About seven in 10 Maryland residents favor legalizing slot-machine gambling, but just as many oppose a sales tax increase that Gov. Martin O'Malley is pushing to close a looming $1.7 billion budget shortfall, a Washington Post poll has found.

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With a special session of the General Assembly set to convene Monday, the poll found a narrow majority of residents satisfied overall with O'Malley's deficit-reduction plan. Although his proposal to raise the sales tax from 5 to 6 percent is widely unpopular, several other tax increases that he is advocating enjoy majority support.

O'Malley (D) received a positive but somewhat lackluster review of his performance after nine months in office, with 53 percent saying they approve of the job he is doing and 36 percent saying they disapprove.

That is similar to approval ratings for former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) on the eve of his loss to O'Malley last year. A year into Ehrlich's term, 62 percent of Marylanders approved of his job performance.

O'Malley aides said they were pleased with the reviews of the governor and his budget plans, citing examples of other governors whose poll numbers slid sharply when pushing tax increases as solutions to budget problems.

"We're in pretty good shape considering we've been talking about taxes for the last five months," said O'Malley spokesman Stephen J. Kearney. He said the poll showed O'Malley "well positioned to pass a fair, long-term solution to the state's perennial budget problems."

But critics of the governor seized on the lack of support for the sales tax increase. The proposal would yield more revenue for the state, about $730 million a year, than any of O'Malley's other proposals.

"The governor's proposal on the sales tax represents the lion's share of the taxes he wants to raise," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "Considering that only 29 percent of Marylanders think that's a good idea before we've even had a debate, that does not bode well for his plan overall."

The poll found a widespread sense that the state budget challenge is serious. More than six in 10 characterize the $1.7 billion shortfall as a "big problem," and three in 10 consider budget and taxes the top issues.

Although a bare majority supports O'Malley's whole plan, five of the six revenue measures tested in the poll received more significant support. Only 8 percent of those polled support all six measures -- underscoring the challenge O'Malley faces in selling the plan to the legislature.

The broad support for slots at a limited number of racetracks and other locations eclipsed that in previous Post polls. About 60 percent voiced support in January 2004 and June 2006 polls for slot machines at tracks. A majority opposed placing the machines in "bars, restaurants or hotels." This time, the recommendation, which is projected to yield $550 million a year for the state, won broad approval across the state and across party lines.

Even in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where state legislators have strongly opposed expanded gambling, residents are generally supportive.

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