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Dueling Revenue Estimates Stoke Slots Debate in Md.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008; Page B01

In the closing weeks of Maryland's campaign on slot machine gambling, supporters are betting heavily that voters will be swayed by the lure of new state revenue.

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Their television ads promise an annual infusion of $660 million for education. But slots opponents insist that the figure is illusory and would be offset by costs from increased traffic, crime and other gambling-related social ills.

The truth is, no one really knows how much slots would yield for Maryland.

The figure cited by supporters comes from an analysis by nonpartisan staff of the Maryland General Assembly, drawn heavily from the experiences of surrounding states that have legalized slots. The ad refers to estimates for more than three years from now.

Legislative analysts say that, if anything, their numbers are conservative, meaning Maryland eventually stands to reap even more than projected if voters approve a plan to legalize as many as 15,000 machines at sites in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and the city of Baltimore.

A study released yesterday by an institute at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County questioned that assertion. The study, commissioned by a national anti-gambling group, suggests that figures from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services are at the high end of reasonable estimates.

"There's a lot of uncertainty," said Judith Shinogle, lead researcher on the study by the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research, which questions the degree to which Marylanders playing slots in other states will adjust their habits. "It's very difficult to estimate something like slot machine gambling that's new to a state."

UMBC officials said the group that paid for the study, StopPredatoryGambling.org, had no influence over its findings.

Although legislative analysts stand by their numbers, they readily acknowledge that estimates of slots proceeds are based on many variables, including some that policymakers in Maryland do not fully control, if at all.

The strength of the economy two years from now, when slot machines would begin operating in Maryland, would undoubtedly factor into residents' decisions about how often to gamble.

Passage of slots in Maryland would almost certainly affect gaming policies in West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania as casinos in those states try to keep their Maryland customers, but exactly how is anyone's guess.

And local zoning battles could delay or possibly scuttle the opening of one or more of the Maryland locations, significantly affecting overall proceeds. Politicians in Anne Arundel County, where the largest site is envisioned, are gearing up for what they say will be a second fight over slots if the measure passes.

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