Foes Protest Ballot Question Wording

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008; Page B07

Opponents of a November referendum on slot machines filed a lawsuit yesterday challenging the proposed constitutional amendment.

At the same time, a bid by slots foes to change the ballot question wording to make it less favorable to gambling interests was denied by Maryland election officials.

The lawsuit, filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court by attorney Irwin Kramer, and the appeal to the State Board of Elections by Marylanders to Stop Slots, contend that the wording of the Nov. 4 ballot proposal conceals how gambling revenue would be spent.

The ballot language released last week by Secretary of State John P. McDonough lists several education programs that would benefit from slots proceeds. But it does not mention the profits that would be kept by gambling operators and the revenue earmarked for Maryland's ailing horse-racing industry.

"It's a failure of truth in advertising," said Kramer, whose lawsuit on behalf of two anti-slots groups seeks to invalidate the proposed amendment by prohibiting election officials from certifying the ballot language. "If you look at the proposed ballot question, it makes it look like you're supporting all kinds of wonderful educational things."

In a statement yesterday, the leading pro-slots group, For Maryland for Our Future, called the lawsuit "frivolous," an insult to voters and an "anti-democratic" waste of taxpayer money. The group also noted declining state revenue estimates from the comptroller's office, and described the estimated $600 million in slots revenue for school funding as "even more critical."

Kramer represented the plaintiffs in an unsuccessful Republican-led lawsuit to overturn the action of last year's special session of the General Assembly, which approved the referendum and a $1.4 billion tax increase to address a budget deficit. Maryland's highest court threw out that suit in March.

If voters approve the slots proposal, as many as 15,000 slot machines would be authorized at five locations in Anne Arundel, Cecil, Worcester and Allegany counties and the city of Baltimore.

The debate over what voters will read in the voting booth has consumed the slots debate all month, keeping the issue in the foreground for opponents eager for attention and low on funding.

Critics of the referendum have taken aim at McDonough since his appointment in July by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to an otherwise low-profile position. The secretary of state, an attorney, formerly represented Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, prompting anti-gambling groups to question his objectivity in drafting the ballot language. McDonough declined to honor a request from opponents to recuse himself, saying state law required him to carry out his job.

Scott Arceneaux, a senior adviser to Marylanders United to Stop Slots, tried to make the case for bias to the state elections board.

"The money involved is going to go to the gambling industry to the tune of half a billion dollars per year," he told the board. "The language doesn't pass the fairness test. We believe that if you were given language saying the moon is made of green cheese, you would not put that on the ballot."

But the board was swayed by the arguments of McDonough's deputy, who said his boss reviewed the language of similar ballot questions in other states and consulted with his predecessors. "The secretary truly believes this has been a fair and honest process for the voter to understand the measure," deputy Secretary of State Brian R. Moe said. Moe said McDonough identified Video Lottery Terminals in the language as "slot machines" to convey the common usage of the devices.

Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Davis, who represents the elections board, said the board has "no discretion" to alter the ballot language and called its function "purely ministerial," even though the board approves the ballot.

Arceneaux said later that his group plans to circulate information at voting precincts that explains who would benefit from slots proceeds. However, he said his group is unlikely to join plaintiffs Stop Slots Maryland and No Casino Maryland in their lawsuit. "We feel very strongly that the referendum should not be stopped," Arceneaux said.

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