By John Wagner and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
A broad majority of Maryland voters supports a proposal for slot machine gambling on the Nov. 4 ballot as deepening worries about the state budget outweigh lingering concerns about the social problems that slots might bring, according to a Washington Post poll.
Sixty-two percent of likely voters expressed support for the ballot measure, while 36 percent said they would vote against it. Only 2 percent said they were undecided about the proposal, which Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has cast as a partial solution to the state's fiscal problems and foes say will lead to increased crime, gambling addiction and other ills.
About one-third of voters who think slots might have negative consequences still support the plan, which legislative analysts predict would eventually generate more than $600 million a year for education. Other proceeds would go to operators of slots parlors and the horse-racing industry.
Passage or failure of the measure is intended to put to rest an issue that has dominated state politics for close to a decade and produced repeated legislative stalemates during the tenure of O'Malley's predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
The proposal, which would authorize as many as 15,000 machines at five locations, drew at least majority support from voters in all regions of the state, in both major political parties, and among all income and education levels. A majority of male and female voters and black and white voters said they would support the plan, which will appear as Question 2.
Nearly two-thirds of voters cited the economy and jobs as the most pressing issue in Maryland, a sevenfold increase from a year ago. The same percentage also said things are seriously on the wrong track in Maryland -- a jump of 15 percentage points from a year ago and a dramatic turnaround from two years ago, just before O'Malley's election, when nearly six in 10 said things were on the right track.
Nearly all Maryland voters are worried about the economy, and about two-thirds are concerned about family finances, the poll found.
Voters' dour outlook has no discernible effect on how they view O'Malley's performance, however. Fifty-three percent say they approve of the way the governor is handling his job, while 37 percent disapprove. Those numbers are about the same as a year ago, the last time The Post conducted a Maryland poll.
Polls since then have indicated a drop-off in O'Malley's popularity after a special legislative session last fall in which lawmakers initiated a series of budget cuts and raised taxes by nearly $1.4 billion a year.
During that session, the legislature approved O'Malley's plan to let voters decide whether to legalize slots. Under the plan, slot machines would be authorized in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and in Baltimore.
About two-thirds of voters in those jurisdictions said they would support the slots plan, despite warnings from opponents about negative impacts on their communities.
They include voters such as Lara Allen of Odenton, who said she lives about 10 miles from the most likely slots site in Anne Arundel, the Laurel Park horse racing track. Allen, 39, an information technology consultant, said she could envision more traffic resulting from slots but added that she thinks such concerns are overblown. She also questioned whether slots would generate as much money as advocates suggest.
"I just don't see any reason to stop it," Allen said. "Any revenue that could be generated from it is a good thing."
Among Maryland's larger jurisdictions, support for slots was highest in Baltimore, at 75 percent. That figure was 58 percent in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and 54 percent in Montgomery.
Slots opponents are relying on heavy turnout from voters such as Mary Moore, a Prince George's County schoolteacher who lives in Brandywine. Moore, who said she is in her early 60s, said she doubts that slots would generate as much money for education as advertised, and she is concerned about crime.
"Wherever they put slots, you're going to have to have more security," Moore said. "Our police officers are already overtaxed."
Although the slots debate produced repeated standoffs in the legislature, most voters appear to be approaching the issue more pragmatically. Few seem to relish the prospect of expanded gambling, but most believe it would help ease budget shortfalls that have reopened in Maryland largely because of the economic downturn, which is undercutting tax collections.
In the poll, only three in 10 said they would play slots often or sometimes. Nearly half said slot machines would have a negative impact on the communities in which they are located. And only about 1 in 5 said slots would help the state budget "a great deal." But nearly seven in 10 said the budget would be helped at least "somewhat" by legalizing slots -- and that belief appears to bolster support for the ballot measure more than any other factor.
There is also broad public concern that a loss on slots would lead Maryland to scale back money for public schools, cut other programs or reduce aid to local governments.
Those concerns largely mirror arguments being made in television ads and in mailings by the state's leading pro-slots group, For Maryland For Our Future. The group this month reported raising about nine times as much money as anti-slots groups, with the majority of its nearly $3.8 million coming from gambling and horse-racing interests that stand to benefit from slots.
Bridget Frey, a spokeswoman for Marylanders United to Stop Slots, attributed the Post poll's findings to heavy spending by the pro-slots group. "We're going to spend the next two weeks pressing our efforts," Frey said. "We're confident in our grass-roots efforts."
Steve Kearney, spokesman for the pro-slots group, said the poll showed that "clearly people want to keep the millions of dollars already being spent out of state on slots for Maryland's needs," a reference to Marylanders who play slots in Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Kearney said the poll showed that momentum is on his group's side but "we won't be taking anything for granted in the final two weeks."
The poll found no unanimity among slots opponents when asked the primary source of their opposition, a significant challenge for that side's campaign in coming weeks. About equal numbers said that gambling becomes an addiction, that it is immoral, that it hurts the poor, that it fosters crime or that it is a bad way to solve the budget deficit or raise government revenue.
The percentage of voters calling the state budget situation a "big problem" has spiked over the past year, increasing from 61 percent to 76 percent.
When O'Malley convened last year's special session, Maryland was facing a budget shortfall of more than $1.5 billion, the result of lawmakers chronically spending more than the state raised in taxes.
Largely as a result of the economic slowdown, legislative analysts are forecasting a shortfall of about $1 billion next year. The analysts project that slots could yield more than $660 million a year for the state by fiscal 2013 -- a figure that opponents say is illusory and does not reflect the drain of accompanying social ills on the state budget.
Among demographic groups analyzed by The Post, support for slots dipped below a majority only among weekly churchgoers, 47 percent of whom said they would vote for the plan. Sixty-nine percent of voters who attend church about monthly voiced support, as did 76 percent who reported attending church seldom or never.
Support decreased with education but remained above majority levels in all groups. Sixty-seven percent of those with no more than a high school education said they supported the slots plan, while the figure dropped to 53 percent for those with post-graduate degrees.
Sixty-seven percent of white voters said they support the slots plan, higher than the 54 percent of black voters who did. African American churches have been a primarily focus of slots opponents.
Sixty-seven percent of voters ages 18 to 34 said they support the plan. The number dipped to 56 percent among those 35 to 54 years old but went back up to 67 percent for those 55 and older.
There were no significant differences in support between men and women or those earning more or less than $65,000, the median household income in Maryland.
The Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 16 to 20 among a random sample of 1,005 adults living in Maryland. The margin of sampling error for the 885 registered voters is plus or minus three percentage points. Error margins are larger for subgroups.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.