By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"This is going to be an issue a lot of money will be spent on," said Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the amendment on the House floor. "We want to make sure both sides have access to the money the other side spends." Corporations also will be required to report spending of $10,000 or more.
Opponents of the initiative see themselves as Davids fighting Goliaths. They expect to be heavily outspent by gambling interests.
"We're going to take it from the bottom up," said Tom Grey, founder of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, which plans to be active in Maryland. "All we have is our credibility."
Pro-gambling interests contributed $46.7 million of the $53.7 million raised last year in battles over six ballot measures in other states, according to a study last month by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Only one of those proposals, to allow bingo and raffles in Arkansas, passed. Supporters of Ohio's failed proposal to allow 31,500 slot machines outspent opponents 27 to 1.
Slots foes in Maryland say they are in the early stages of forming a coalition of religious leaders, pro-family groups, civic groups and advocates for the poor to oppose gambling on moral and economic grounds. Meisner said the strategy will be tailored to different parts of the state. In Montgomery County, opponents might argue that slots are a poor way for government to raise money. In communities near the potential sites, opponents might point to possible traffic problems.
With construction and slots parlor jobs at stake, many unions are likely to join the fight for slots. Advocates say they will try to raise doubts about whether the state's health-care, environmental and education priorities can be sustained without gambling revenue, projected to reach $650 million a year eventually. The racing industry will fight to protect jobs and prestige from competition in neighboring states where slots money fuels higher purses.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who advocated the referendum, is likely to join them.
"The governor will be active," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. "There's too much at stake for him not to be."
The industry's influence outside Maryland could play a role. Slots operations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware draw crowds from Maryland, leading some observers to predict that a turf war will break out between gambling interests that stand to gain and lose from slots in Maryland.
"Gaming interests that don't want us to have gaming will spend millions," said Gerard E. Evans, lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. He played down spending by companies that would benefit in Maryland, citing dampened enthusiasm over the share of revenue that slots operators would receive: 33 percent, which is less than in other states.
Opponents said they don't think that's true.
"I don't believe it for a second," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "You'll see a tidal wave of gambling industry money slosh across Maryland."
Penn National, which operates Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia, tried and failed to have its recently acquired Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County included as a potential Maryland site. But a company official said that won't motivate the company to fight the referendum.
"Gaming companies are, by and large, aggressive growth companies," said Eric Shippers, the company's vice president of public affairs. "We haven't played to protect the ball."
The company gave $2.7 million to support last year's ballot measure in Ohio, even though it has a competing property in neighboring Indiana.
Opponents of last year's unsuccessful effort to allow a new resort casino in Rhode Island received several million dollars from existing operators who believed that the competition would threaten their profits, according to the Money in State Politics study.
Maryland slots opponents said they are not interested in accepting gambling money to fight gambling. "That's largely a myth put forward by the other side," said Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who plans to be active in the fight against slots.