Both Sides of Md. Slot Debate Cite Economy

By John Wagner and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 14, 2008

The campaign for slot machine gambling in Maryland is increasingly pinning its rhetoric on the faltering economy. So is the campaign against slots.

Strategists at For Maryland For Our Future, a committee begun with the blessing of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), are drafting a message that emphasizes the consequences if voters reject slots in a November referendum: state budget shortfalls that could mean higher taxes or cuts to education and other critical services.

The weak economy reinforces that dynamic, said Fred Puddester, a former state budget secretary tapped to lead the pro-slots campaign. "With people struggling to pay $4-a-gallon gas and other commodities, it helps us, particularly if higher taxes is the alternative," Puddester said.

Strategists for Marylanders United to Stop Slots counter that the weak economy cuts their way.

With families experiencing a loss in discretionary income, casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere have been hurt. That is among several reasons to question estimates from state fiscal analysts that slots could eventually yield more than $600 million a year for the state budget, said Scott Arceneaux, senior adviser to the anti-slots committee.

"We think this is going to be a big factor," Arceneaux said. "In an economic downturn, people have less discretionary income to spend."

The economy is one of several uncertainties that could shape the remaining four months of Maryland's slots campaign. Among the others: Who will step up to fund the two sides, and how much are they willing to invest? Will fatigue over the long-running slots debate make it more difficult to engage voters? And what role will O'Malley and Republican leaders play in lobbying the public?

So far, skirmishing over November's referendum -- which will let voters resolve a vexing issue that has confounded the General Assembly for years -- has taken place largely out of public view, among die-hard activists and hired consultants.

But opponents of expanded gambling worked to spread their message at this month's holiday parades, and they vow to become a regular presence in the five communities -- Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore -- where they say crime, traffic and other woes would accompany the 15,000 slot machines that voters will be asked to authorize.

A national anti-gambling group is also angling to get involved, with a September rally planned at National Harbor, a high-profile development in Prince George's County that has rejected overtures to become a potential slots venue.

"We're going to go there on the basis of saying, 'You can have a great development and say no to casinos,' " said Tom Grey, field director for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, which has been involved in similar fights across the country in recent years.

In the weeks before Labor Day, slots proponents say teachers, labor unions and other groups will start knocking on doors, telling of the hundreds of millions in revenue that slots could generate for the state budget.

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