Full-Scale Md. Brawl Expected Over Slots
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Next year's ballot proposal on slot machines in Maryland will pit grass-roots opponents against a well-funded industry in what is likely to be an expensive battle over whether the state should join its neighbors in expanding gambling beyond the lottery and horse racing.
Both sides are gearing up for a multimillion-dollar statewide campaign, a high-profile political fight complete with televised debates, town hall-style meetings, heavy advertising, fundraising and mudslinging. With the presidential contest on the same November ballot, high turnout is likely, and the issue evokes such strong passions that it will probably be familiar to most voters before Election Day.
"I don't think people will be uninformed," said David Dunphy, a lobbyist for United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 27, which represents racetrack workers and plans to campaign for the ballot initiative.
The referendum, approved by the General Assembly last week in a special session aimed at closing the state's projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall, represented a compromise to break a five-year impasse in Annapolis on legalizing slots.
If voters approve the initiative, Maryland will become the 38th state to allow slots or casino-style gambling, according to the American Gaming Association. A Washington Post poll last month found that seven in 10 Maryland residents support legalizing slots. But voters in 10 states -- including California, Ohio, Nebraska, Michigan, Rhode Island and, this month, Maine -- have shot down initiatives to expand or introduce casinos and slots since 2004, despite heavy spending by the industry. County ballot proposals, including initiatives in Florida and Kansas, have been more successful.
In most general elections, Maryland voters are asked to approve little-noticed ballot questions such as small changes to the state constitution or spending on parkland. Not since 1992, when Marylanders voted to guarantee that legal, early-term abortions would continue even if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, have they weighed in on such a controversial issue.
"My biggest problem is managing enthusiasm," said Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, which is organizing opposition to next year's measure. "Obviously there's a huge amount of interest in this."
He predicted an "asymmetric war" against gambling companies and related businesses that stand to benefit from lucrative licenses to build slots parlors. Voters will be asked to approve a total of 15,000 machines at sites in Baltimore and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties.
Supporters say Maryland is an island surrounded by states that have embraced slot machine gambling as an economic savior.
"To think this is worse than the lottery is foolish," said Bill Rickman, owner of the Ocean Downs racetrack, which would be eligible for 2,500 slot machines if voters approve. "These are destination locations. It's not impulse gambling whatsoever."
Both sides are preparing to form political action committees to raise money, as political candidates do. Under state law, campaigns on single-issue questions must disclose donors and spending 10 days before and 2 1/2 weeks after Election Day.
Late in the special session, lawmakers added another reporting deadline of four weeks before the vote.