Leggett Reverses Stance, Supports Md. Slots Measure

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

Montgomery County's top elected official yesterday "reluctantly" endorsed a November ballot measure to legalize slot machines, reversing his long-standing opposition to state-run gambling and taking a position at odds with that of many of the county's other political leaders.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) had signaled a shift earlier, but the announcement in a news release is his most definitive statement about a decision that a Leggett aide called an "excruciating dilemma."

For at least the past eight years, Leggett has spoken out against legalizing slots, but his position has evolved as state and local budget problems have worsened.

He said the change was prompted by "the lack of other viable options, the certain impact of cuts on the poorest and most vulnerable in Montgomery County and throughout the state, and the need for additional resources."

"Reluctantly, I will cast my vote for the ballot measure," Leggett said.

Montgomery has historically led the anti-slots sentiment, and Leggett's predecessor, Douglas M. Duncan, was a slots opponent. Leggett first came out against slots in 2002, when he agreed to serve as Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's gubernatorial campaign chairman.

"I'm undoubtedly opposed to it," he said during the race for county executive in 2005. "It negatively impacts the minority community and the poor and the vulnerable."

During the past year, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and lawmakers increased the sales, corporate income, tobacco and vehicle title taxes and raised taxes on high-income earners. State analysts project a new shortfall of up to $1 billion and expect that the slots referendum, backed by O'Malley, could yield more than $500 million a year in state revenue within a few years.

In Montgomery, Leggett faces an estimated $250 million shortfall and plans to shut down all but essential government services for at least two days this fall to trim spending.

A former Howard University law school professor, Leggett spent weeks agonizing over the issue. He was lobbied heavily by slots opponents. Some urged him to stay silent. Others asked him to publicly condemn slots.

Last week, a dozen local and state officials rallied near Leggett's office in Rockville to voice their opposition to the referendum. This week, he met with local pastors and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), one of the most outspoken foes of the measure, which would allow 15,000 slot machines throughout the state. On Monday, Leggett said he had "not firmed up my conclusion."

In backing slots yesterday, Leggett said he was choosing among "lesser evils." He said that slots were not a "panacea" for Maryland's budget problems and that he was taking a potentially unpopular position with some of his allies.

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