The Slots Deception

Saturday, March 8, 2008

OPPONENTS of gambling in Maryland face an uphill battle ahead of this fall's referendum on a proposal to install 15,000 slot machines at five venues around the state. A shifting but solid majority of Marylanders supports the slots scheme, which has a powerful ally in Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and backing from the horse racing industry, gambling firms, labor unions and other special interests that stand to benefit. But polls suggest that the more voters find out about the slots plan, the more they tend to dislike it. For while it seems to promise quick cash on easy terms, in fact it's a raw deal.

In a January survey by the Baltimore Sun, 56 percent of respondents said they thought it was inappropriate to use state money to subsidize the horse racing industry. That's exactly what the slots plan would do, and in a big way: $100 million of Maryland's annual take from slots would go directly to bail out the industry through fatter purses at racetracks and other subsidies.

Similarly, in other polls, the public's support for slots falls sharply when respondents discover that the proposal entails changing Maryland's constitution. Ditto when people are asked how they would feel about introducing slot machine gambling in their county. In other words, slots are okay with Marylanders until they examine the details.

That dovetails with the findings of J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's former attorney general, who issued a comprehensive report on the subject in the mid-1990s. At the time, Mr. Curran, who also happens to be the current governor's father-in-law, was studying the potential effect of full-fledged casino gambling on the state. Nonetheless, he reiterated his findings a few years ago, noting they applied equally to slot machine parlors.

Mr. Curran, who retired last year after almost 50 years in elective office, was long admired in Maryland politics as a straight shooter. "The impact would be this," he wrote. "Casinos would bring a substantial increase in crime to our State. There would be more violent crime, more crimes against property, more insurance fraud, more white collar crime, more juvenile crime, more drug- and alcohol-related crime, more domestic violence and child abuse, and more organized crime."

Advocates of slots don't want Marylanders to know too much before the fall referendum. They'd rather not have voters focus on crime, addictive behavior and other social costs associated with gambling, handouts to the moribund horse racing industry, or the fact that the state constitution would be tampered with under the proposal on the ballot. But here's a case where only a well-informed citizenry can make a sound decision. Let's hope for a full public airing and debate of all the issues surrounding slots.

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