Teachers Union Gives Backing to Slot Machine Initiative

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bolstering the campaign to expand legal gambling in Maryland, the state's powerful teachers union announced its endorsement yesterday of the November referendum to legalize slot machine gambling.

After fierce lobbying from proponents and opponents, the Maryland State Teachers Association board of directors voted to support legalizing slots, taking a stance for the first time on an issue that has long divided politicians in Annapolis. The 70,000-member union said it would soon launch an independent campaign to convince voters that expanded gambling revenue is critical to funding education priorities.

The blessing from teachers is no small victory for slots supporters, who are planning to link the referendum to the needs of public schools. The union's 14 board members deliberated more than five hours into the night Friday, debating whether to take a position or follow the pleas of some local affiliates, including the Montgomery County teachers union, to remain neutral.

The board decided that slot machine gambling -- which, if the referendum passes, would be estimated to eventually reap at least $600 million in revenue annually -- is a "necessary component to curing our state's long-term fiscal woes," said board President Clara Floyd.

"Because of our state's precarious fiscal outlook, if this referendum fails, students, teachers and support staff will be left with outdated facilities, larger classes, outdated textbooks and shortages of materials," Floyd said in a statement. "School systems will be left with fewer resources to recruit and retain the best teachers and support staff."

The General Assembly voted during the fall's special session to hold a public referendum on allowing 15,000 slot machines at five locations. The legislature also passed $1.4 billion in tax increases and other measures designed to fix the state's structural budget deficit, attributed in part to Maryland's costly landmark Thornton education plan.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), a leading supporter of the referendum, had told the teachers union that if the slots referendum fails, education funding could face severe cuts. With no additional revenue from slots, the state would have to cut spending, including for education, which makes up about 40 percent of the state's budget, Miller said.

"We're saying to them, 'Look, you guys, you've got to step up,' " Miller told reporters Friday. He said he told teachers, "We love you, but we've got to pay the bills."

Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and other slots opponents also lobbied teachers.

When asked about the intense efforts by slots proponents to win the support of teachers, Franchot said, "That's just the Annapolis way: Vote with us or we'll come at you."

Franchot said he told board members that legalizing slots would create "a regressive tax on families."

"If the supporters of gambling are able to get them involved, we're going to defeat them anyway," Franchot said of the teachers union.

Franchot, the state's chief tax collector, said the state could replace the anticipated slots revenue by investing in biotechnology and other emerging scientific industries and stepping up tax collections. But Miller said the state would be hard-pressed to find an alternative revenue source.

"Peter Franchot says we're going to get the money from life sciences," Miller said. "What kind of bs is that?"

The teachers union largely stayed neutral during the slots debate under former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Some local affiliates wanted the state association to stay neutral this time, too.

"Clearly they decided not to do that," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association.

Members of the state association were torn Friday, although union spokesman Daniel Kaufman would not disclose the vote's margin.

"We have members who have deeply felt opinions on either side of the issue," Kaufman said. "The bottom line is: This has been a long and very deliberate and independent process."

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