By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Maryland voters gave their blessing yesterday to slot machine gambling, breaking a perennial stalemate in Annapolis with big implications for the state budget.
Voters were favoring approval of the ballot measure by nearly a 3-to-2 ratio, with two-thirds of precincts reporting as of midnight.
The plan, backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), would allow up to 15,000 machines at five locations. O'Malley and other boosters cast the proposal as a means to balance the budget, protect education funding and aid Maryland's ailing horse racing industry.
Opponents pointed to addiction and other social ills that could accompany expanded gambling, and they questioned estimates that slots could eventually yield $660 million a year for education.
During a campaign in which slots advocates greatly outspent opponents, the arguments echoed those of recent years, when the previous governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), and the General Assembly seemed paralyzed by the issue.
Voters also approved a lower-profile constitutional amendment, known as Question 1, that would authorize the legislature to establish early voting starting with the 2010 elections. Voters were supporting that measure overwhelmingly.
Partial returns showed support for slots at its lowest level in Montgomery County. But even there, a majority appeared likely to vote for approval. In Prince George's, the measure was leading by about the same margin as statewide.
Exit polling showed the measure winning statewide among men and women, black and white voters, and voters of all income levels.
"I think most of us had made up our minds on this long ago," O'Malley said in an interview after passage of the measure became clear. "Tonight we now know these revenues will eventually be part of the mix of revenues that we use to invest in very important things."
Aaron Meisner, chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, one of the groups fighting the ballot proposal, attributed the outcome partly to an economic climate "well beyond our control."
"When you promise all this free money for the harvesting, it's sort of irresistible to a lot of voters," he said.
Passage of Question 2, the constitutional amendment authorizing slots, was expected to set off a flurry of activity, with the goal of constructing and opening slots parlors by 2011 in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and the city of Baltimore. Two of the venues could be at existing horse racing tracks, but none of the locations is guaranteed.
A seven-member commission, to be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, would be charged with picking the operators and precise locations.
Several potential bidders have emerged, some of them making substantial donations to the O'Malley-backed committee that ran the pro-slots campaign. Other groups are expected to scramble to put together financing plans and acquire land in time to meet a Feb. 1 deadline for submitting bids.
Slots parlors would be subject to local zoning provisions, and some politicians in Anne Arundel County have signaled their opposition to slots. The Anne Arundel site is envisioned as the state's largest, with almost one-third of the machines and about 40 percent of the estimated revenue.
Debate over the measure was as impassioned at some polling stations yesterday as it has been at the legislature. In heavily Democratic Takoma Park, voters Matthew Graham and Jared Hughes engaged in a boisterous discussion of the issue.
"Government should not promote and support a vice," said Hughes, 36. "It's a tax on poor people."
Graham countered by saying that Maryland already has the state lottery and gambling at race tracks. "The little old ladies who play slots don't do a lot of crime," said Graham, 48.
Defeat of the slots measure would have made a challenging state budget outlook even more bleak, O'Malley and legislative leaders had said.
Maryland is facing a $1 billion shortfall in next year's budget. Although that projection is largely unaffected by slots, estimated shortfalls in later budgets could grow significantly larger without the anticipated revenue.
Analysts estimate that total slots proceeds would approach $1.4 billion by fiscal 2013, the first full year in which all authorized machines would be generating revenue. About half would go to state education programs. Other shares of the proceeds are earmarked for the operators of slots parlors, the horse racing industry and the governments of jurisdictions where the facilities are located.
Concern about the state budget -- and the economy in general -- appeared to bolster support for slots among Maryland voters in the closing weeks of the campaign. A Washington Post poll published Oct. 22 found that 62 percent of likely voters supported the ballot measure and that 36 percent opposed it. Many people expressed concern that a loss on slots would lead Maryland to scale back spending for public schools, cut other programs or reduce aid to local governments.
Those concerns largely mirrored arguments made in television and radio ads by For Maryland For Our Future, the group leading the pro-slots campaign.
As of Oct. 19, the group had raised almost $4.4 million, more than seven times as much as was raised by groups opposing the ballot measure. Much of the pro-slots funding had come from gambling and racing interests.
The leading anti-slots group, Marylanders United to Stop Slots, whose public face was Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), had raised $570,773 as of the last reporting deadline.
Debate over slots dominated former governor Ehrlich's tenure. The legislature came closest to passing slots legislation in 2005, when competing plans passed the Senate and House. They were never reconciled.
Last year, O'Malley proposed ending the impasse by putting the issue to voters, hoping that passage would help close a projected budget gap.
The other constitutional amendment, to authorize voting as much as two weeks before Maryland elections, drew less attention but was opposed by Republican lawmakers.
In 2006, the legislature passed an early voting law over Ehrlich's objections. The law was later struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. The ballot measure would allow the legislature to enact a new law.
House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) recently said the proposal is "ripe for fraud" because it would allow people to vote early at polling places outside of their districts.
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman, Steve Hendrix and Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.